Lifelaunchr is a regular contributor to the Edmodo Blog. With articles written by Venkates Swaminathan, Founder/CEO of LifeLaunchr, the site provides parents and students with virtual and in-person coaching for all aspects of college planning, starting as early as freshman year. Watch for a new post regularly on the Edmodo blog and find out how you or your student can better prepare for a life-changing experience in college.
Each year the college admissions process gets increasingly complex. This year brings a new SAT, and a number of changes to the ACT. There’s the new Coalition Application, changes to the Common Application, and the University of California just changed its essay prompts.
And each year college gets more expensive. Student loan debt in the U.S. now totals $1.35 trillion (with a “T”). The average student now holds over $37,000 in student loan debt. With costs that high, you need to make sure the decision to go to college is not a $100,000 mistake.
So if as a parent you’re stressed, that is understandable. Parents and counselors can often contribute to this stress by raising expectations that a teen will attend a particular college, or that they have their career plan all worked out before they graduate high school.
But college admissions don’t have to be so stressful. High school can be a time when you really start learning about the adult you’ll soon be, and finding a college can come naturally and easily out of that. With a little planning, and by taking advantage of the resources at your disposal, you can make a great choice for your life (or your teen’s).
1. Start early: Start as early as summer before junior year, or even sophomore year. Make sure you’re thinking about what you might want to study, and use your high-school to get a good sample. If you want to study engineering, make sure you take calculus. It’s hard to excel at engineering if you don’t like calculus. If you want to study medicine, take AP Biology. No matter what everyone else says or does, don’t overload your high school years with AP courses unless you’re really that motivated and enjoy the work. Use AP and Honors courses to explore your interests, challenge yourself, and learn essential college skills (like AP English).
2. Take virtual tours before visiting: Traveling to visit a dozen schools might seem really tempting, but it is expensive. Before you go, check out virtual tours so you can travel while still home. You’ll get a great sense of whether you want to study at a big school or a small one; a university with a particular religious affiliation or a college for a particular group (like a Historically Black College); a small-town institution or a big-city school. On LifeLaunchr, you can use our premium college search to find schools, and then explore virtual tours for the ones you think you might like.
3. Understand why you’re going to college: Spend time talking with family and friends about your goals for college. Do you want it to expand your horizons, or do you already know what you want to study? Is finding yourself the big goal, or are you looking for a leg up with a career? Do you want personal connections with the professors, or the resources of a big research university?
4. Build a short but meaningful resume: Many students spend their high school years rushing from one thing to another, creating a long resume that is full of things they only have a passing interest in. You’ll find it much more useful (and way less stressful!) if you build a short resume that is filled with activities you genuinely enjoy. Maybe it’s volunteering at a food bank, or playing water polo, or teaching drums. Focus yourself on building an extracurricular resume that really represents you. One student I coached recently has built a career as a photographer, while he’s still in high school! He’s done it without a lot of stress, because he loves to take pictures.
5. Find great schools that aren’t way out of your reach: For too many students, the stress of high school comes from seeking to go to a school that’s just too hard for you to get into. Honestly, chasing the top-ranked US News & World Report schools is a disastrous idea. If you focus on finding and pursuing your interests, you’ll find a school that fits you. And fit is much more important than rank. So don’t chase after a perfect GPA or a perfect test score.
6. Don’t follow the crowd: We all love our friends and community. But leaving high school is also a great opportunity to build new friendships and a new community for college. The college that fits your best-friend (or boyfriend) may not be right for you. She may need to go to a large school, and you may need to be in a small town. That is ok. Many high school counselors are most familiar with in-state universities, private schools nearby, and Ivy League schools. But if you broaden your horizon, you could find a place that offers a great education, a great value for money, and fits you and your needs so much better.
7. Find a mentor or a coach: Doing this alone is very hard. And parents (I know, I’m one) can’t always be a teen’s best coach. So, if you’re a parent, encourage your teen to find a coach. It can be a professional, or a teacher or counselor who has the time. If you’re a teen, find someone you can talk to about this that has an adult perspective.
8. Give yourself enough time to write your essays: One of the hardest things about college is writing all the essays you need as part of the process. Unlike the essays students write in school, personal statements for college applications need to be authentic, compelling, unconventionally written, and polished. For most students, that is a tall order. And reading all the “successful” Ivy League essays that are always published each year just makes the whole thing harder. But really, writing a great essay is a craft, not a miracle. It takes time, because the first draft will not be great. So you have to allow time to revise, edit, and get feedback. So, start early!
9. Build a scholarship search into your process: Every year, thousands of scholarships go unclaimed, because not enough people applied. There are many myths about scholarships: that they are only for people with financial need; that they are only for academics or sports; that they are only for people who have overcome some extraordinary adversity. None of these myths are true, and by spending just a few minutes each week, you can find and get scholarships that will make college much less expensive, or even better, free! You might even be able to attend a school you thought was unaffordable.
The endless focus on testing and the complexity of applications has taken the joy of learning out of high school for so many students. But there are a lot of great choices for college, and you can find one that meets your goals without driving yourself insane with stress!