What to Do When Your Child Wants You to Be a Helicopter Parent During the College Search

What to Do When Your Child Wants You to Be a Helicopter Parent During the College Search

Here’s something I witnessed in the admission office many, many times: Parents playing an active role in the college search. It’s natural, right? We worked with families, not just students.

What happens when the student wants you to do it all? I saw a lot of this:

  • Parents who called me in the admission office (not their student).
  • Emails from parents with questions (I never heard from their kid).
  • Parents who filled out applications for their kids (it was sometimes obvious!)

Now, to be fair, students sometimes messaged me. The occasional student even talked to me on the phone. 

One mom, Mrs. Bach, left me this voicemail: “This is Mrs. Bach, Emily’s secretary. Emily refuses to pick up the phone, so I’m calling to ask questions about your college’s music scholarship.”

It made me smile, but I also know Mrs. Bach was slowly being driven crazy by her daughter’s reluctance to handle her own college communication. 

What should you do when your kid wants you to be a helicopter parent? (Maybe not even consciously?) I know you’ve probably heard this term before, but just in case: Helicopter parents before college hover and take care of every part of their child’s life. On the other hand, lawnmower parents mow down any person or obstacle that stands in the way of anyone or anything that causes their child discomfort or frustration.

Here are a few tips to set expectations, goals and work together. You may want your child to do most of the work but you may also know there are things (like the FAFSA) that may require you to lend a hand.

Heard about helicopter parents in college? Yikes! What happens if your child thinks that'd be just awesome? Here's how to get your child away from that idea.

1. Set Clear Expectations Up Front

Make sure your child knows your comfort level with helping in advance. For example, you can tell your high schooler you’re definitely on board to assist during the college search process but you’re not going to do everything for him. Explain your reasoning and explain your limits way before the college search begins.

Remind your high schooler that completing college admission requirements, scholarships and more doesn’t mean he’s overburdened. Instead, explain that he’s gaining the mental strength he needs to get ready for college.

2. Divvy Up Responsibilities

Decide ahead of time who will handle specific parts of the college search. For example, you might decide you can handle the following:

  • Transportation to and from colleges
  • Filing the FAFSA
  • Financial aid conversations with the college
  • Timeline conversations with admission counselors
  • Scheduling college visits

You might decide your child will handle: 

  • Scholarship applications and essays
  • College research online
  • Getting permission slips from the high school
  • College applications (and managing those deadlines)
  • Scheduling any required alumni interviews 
  • Communicate with admission counselors about fit and social aspects of colleges
  • Talking with coaches

Maybe you’ll choose to do the following together:

  • Schedule college visits over the phone
  • Attend all scheduled college visits and meetings
  • Go to scholarship events at the college (if applicable)
  • Scholarship searches
  • Talk through financial aid awards

Obviously, you can pick and choose which tasks make the most sense for each of you. Your child may be completely fine with scheduling college visits on his own and doing robust scholarship searches. 

No matter what, figure all this out ahead of time and gently hold each other accountable.

3. Set Goals Together

Setting goals together is different than splitting up responsibilities. Setting goals during the college search is a great way to make sure you’re on track. The beauty of goal-setting is that you can kick start it at any time, whether you’ve got a year left in the college search process or three. For example, let’s say your child is a junior in high school. You can map out goals over the next two years. Let’s say you’ve got twin eighth graders. Why not set some loose goals for the next four years? 

Make sure your goals are specific, detailed and indicate when you’d like to accomplish them. 

Let’s say one of your high schooler’s goals is to get into a prestigious university. He could even write it down: “Get into Carnegie Mellon.” But would that actually help him? Nah. A general phrase like that won’t help your child (or you!) hone in on exactly what you both need to do in order to make that happen.

Instead, research what it will take to get there. For example, let’s say you look up Carnegie Mellon’s requirements for the School of Architecture. You find out that your child must:

  • Apply Regular Decision before January 1 during senior year using the Common Application.
  • Submit a portfolio of creative work for admission to the school of architecture.
  • Complete an on-campus review of the portfolio submission.

What will it take to get there? 

Here are some targeted goals your child could write:  

  1. Request information from Carnegie Mellon’s School of Architecture today.
  2. Take an architecture software class at the local community college by May of sophomore year.
  3. Talk to an architect in my community who can advise me on how to put together an architecture portfolio and assist with a project by June of sophomore year.
  4. Design several small buildings using this software during junior year.
  5. Design my aunt’s new home that she’s planning to build during junior year.
  6. Create a portfolio that showcases design creativity and technical expertise in several types of architecture software like Grasshopper or Rhino3D fall of senior year.

Did you notice goal No. 1 on the list? It’s a goal that allows your child to take immediate action. Taking an immediate step toward a major goal makes it more real and builds momentum toward the ultimate goal. 

Here’s a way you can apply it in another way. Let’s say your child has always wanted to travel to Europe with a friend, spouse or other family member. What’s one immediate step she could take to make it happen? 

  1. Call a travel agent today and discuss your future plans.
  2. Request a brochure from a travel company. 
  3. Set a date within 24 hours. Why not? 

See how doing those three things can make something seem so real for your child?

Your child can set small, realistic, specific and attainable goals that lead to the big goal in the end — getting into Carnegie Mellon. Or achieving a specific scholarship — or whatever that goal may be!

4. Write Down Those Goals!

Encourage your child to write down his or her goals. There’s such power in writing down goals! Put them in a place where you’ll both see them every day, whether they’re on a Post-it Note stuck to the bathroom mirror or a printed-out list on the refrigerator (as long as your child doesn’t see them as a constant nagging reminder!).

Trello, a free service, is a great way to handle scholarship applications or college applications. It could include categories like this: 

  • Scholarships to apply for/ Applications to complete
  • In progress
  • Draft complete
  • In editing
  • Ready to submit
  • Submitted

Trello is a great way to keep track of progress and all family members can use it to aid the college search.

5. Acknowledge Steps Taken 

Once you and your child have set those goals, it’s time to tackle them. Now, what happens if your child finds that his or her goals are difficult to achieve?

Break them down into smaller, more manageable chunks. This might take a little more planning but it’s always better to make sure goals are achievable. Otherwise, it would be really easy to give up on them. Be flexible with due dates if it’s an option.

Every time your child achieves one of his or her goals or mini-goals, celebrate! Acknowledging achievements goes a very, very long way during the college search. 

6. Pivot When Goals Aren’t Met

What happens if a goal slips right past your child because he just didn’t feel like doing the work or is unable to complete it in the allotted time? 

For example, what if your child doesn’t want to do the work to get into Carnegie Mellon’s architecture program?

It might be time to go back to the drawing board and figure out whether that’s really your child’s best path. Maybe committing to an architecture major at 18 isn’t the best option! Get to the root of the problem — have some serious conversations with your child and decide what you’ll do next.

So what do you do?

You move forward with the next plan. Maybe the next goal is to apply to Carnegie Mellon using the Common Application after August 15. Maybe the new goal is to get into Arcadia University, closer to home! Break down those goals, write down the new goals and move forward. 

Nip Helicoptering (or Lawnmowering) in the Bud

Your child may be used to your heavy helping hand (remember that science fair project? Yikes!) but now’s the time for your child to start learning how to move independently. Recognizing that deserves a huge round of applause.

One more quick tip: It might not help to air frustrations during this time. You want to be as positive as possible during the college search and you want to be your child’s partner during the process. Remember, your goals may not be the same as your child’s goals. It can be tough to wrap your head around (and tough to accept!) alternative decisions.

Why Planning for Multiple Kids in College Can Be Exciting!

Why Planning for Multiple Kids in College Can Be Exciting!

Two kids (or more) in college at the same time.

What are your immediate thoughts and feelings when you think about this? 

Do you feel excitement for the years ahead? Sad at the idea of being an empty nester? Do you feel a deep spike of fear when you consider how you’ll pay for it? Maybe you feel all of the above!

Hang in there — it’s normal to feel a rollercoaster of emotions.

I’ll always remember the unforgettable Andriuskevicius triplets. (That last name! Three times!) The three high schoolers came through the admission office looking so identical. It was so fun talking with them. Two of the kids ended up enrolling at the private college I worked for. One enrolled at a state university. 

Their parents got slightly nervous when the conversation turned to paying for college. “You know, we knew this was coming,” Mrs. Andriuskevicius said. “But when they say, ‘Enjoy it, they grow so fast,’ they really mean it,” she added.

She was a fun mom (she had to be, to raise triplets!) and asked how much it would cost immediately. She listened to the financial aid spiel and did some fast math. Mrs. Andriuskevicius totaled up a pretty accurate figure in her head about much it would cost for all three kids to go to college — after grants and scholarships.

According to College Board, the average published yearly tuition and fees (not including room, board, housing or supplies) are:

  • Two-year public colleges (in-district students): $3,440
  • Four-year public colleges (in-state students): $9,410
  • Four-year public colleges (out-of-state students): $23,890
  • Private four-year colleges: $32,410

Multiply these amounts by two (or three or four!) kids and you could be looking at quite a chunk of change, as Mrs. Andriuskevicius deduced in about one minute flat. (I was really impressed.)  

Hang on, there’s good news coming!

You're right if you think things will change with more than one student in college. It'll change how you pay for college!

There’s Good News!

Did you know that it having two kids in college can work to your advantage?

“In my experience, the FAFSA’s expected family contribution (EFC) takes a significant drop when the second and third child enter college,” says Pam Rambo, former financial aid director in a community college, four-year college and a 5-city college access organization training counselors in financial aid. She now owns Rambo Research and Consulting. 

The EFC is based on household income and assets. It’s the minimum amount that a household is expected to contribute toward the cost of college.

The financial aid office at each college uses the EFC for each student to determine how much aid your student gets. “That is a simple subtraction problem in which they take the official cost of attendance (COA) for their school and subtract the EFC,” Rambo says. 

In other words, let’s say your student is attending a college that costs $30,000 per year and your child’s EFC is $15,000. The amount of need for your oldest child is $15,000. 

Now, that doesn’t mean that all financial aid offices try to meet the full $15,000. Each financial aid office uses a financial aid formula that they use to distribute aid. Some colleges try to meet 100 percent of need. Others might meet 50 percent to 80 percent of need.

Check for a Sibling Discount

Have your kids considered going to the same college?

Whenever I think about this topic, Michelle, Maye and Rachael all come to mind — three sisters who attended the college I worked for — all at the same time. Michelle was a senior, Maye was a junior and Rachael was a freshman! They always said their dad (jokingly) refused to move three girls to three separate colleges each fall. It worked out really well that they all went to the same college.

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I Know What You’re Thinking: “There’s No Way My Kids Will Go to the Same School!”

You might think there’s no way your kids will go to the same school: “They’re like oil and water! There’s no way they’ll end up on the same campus!” But the reality is that older siblings do have an influence on younger siblings, according to a working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

In addition, a study by Joshua Goodman of Brandeis University, Michael Hurwitz of the College Board, Christine Mulhern of Harvard University and Jonathan Smith of Georgia State University found that when older siblings enroll at a target college, it “nearly quadruples” the probability that younger siblings will apply to that same school. In addition, 13 percent of younger siblings follow their older sibling to the target college only because their older sibling enrolled there. 

The benefit? Cost reductions. 

“If the children are entering the same college, I have seen very favorable treatment in terms of the financial aid package offered,” Rambo adds. She says there’s no fixed dollar amount for the reduction because the reduction depends on financial information from each family.

“I like to address the fear of parents of freshmen, sophomores and juniors with a plan to apply where their aid awards will be greatest in relation to the cost of the colleges. Looking at whether colleges collect even more data about a family by requiring the CSS Profile is another strategy,” she says.

The CSS Profile, short for the College Scholarship Service Profile, is an online application created and maintained by the College Board. It allows college students to apply for non-federal financial aid and requires a much more comprehensive overview than the FAFSA. Nearly 400 colleges and scholarship programs use it to award non-federal aid. Check with the admission office of the schools your chid is applying to to determine whether your child needs to fill out the CSS Profile.

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Filing the FAFSA

Does it change the FAFSA with more than one student in college? Rambo says that in addition to other calculations, the FAFSA collects information on the number of minor children in the family who will also be attending an undergraduate program at the same time and figures that into the formula, which is used to calculate the EFC for each child headed to college.

A frequent surprise for families with two children in college: Each child has a different EFC number. “They ask, ‘How is this possible when we entered our same income information for both?’” Rambo says. 

The answer is simple: Student income and bank balances can make a difference.

How Many FAFSAs Do You Need to Complete for Multiple Kids?

This is a great (and common!) question. You’ll need to fill out FAFSA forms for each child but can transfer the information from one form to another so you don’t have to completely start from scratch each time you work on the FAFSA.

But wait! Before you file the FAFSA, you’ll need to get separate FSA IDs for each child. An FSA ID is a username and password combination that serves as your legal electronic signature throughout the financial aid process. You and each of your children will need your own FSA ID.

Your FSA ID is associated with your Social Security number and is equivalent to your legal signature. That’s why you must have a special FSA ID per person. You’ll use the same FSA ID to sign each of your children’s FAFSA forms.

Get Excited!

Don’t forget to do a few things methodically:

  • Look for lower-priced schools.
  • Put an emphasis on having your child help earn money throughout school.
  • Consider ways to earn more or make more money.
  • Consider federal loans over private loans. The Parent Loan for Undergraduate Students (PLUS loan) is an excellent option if you’re willing to take out a little bit more for college. for the freshman year and work with the college aid and scholarship offices to find additional funds for sophomore year and beyond. Learn how to apply for the Parent PLUS loan.
  • Remember that you don’t have to come up with the full amount yourself. Many colleges offer steep discounts!

“You might find that if you’re a high-income earner and your child has already been accepted at a high-dollar university which only awards need-based aid, you may not see much help with the first child who enrolls there. That will improve some when a second child goes to college,” Rambo says.

It Takes Planning

Every dollar you save is $1 less that you or your child will have to borrow. (Yep, I’ll bring out the “a penny saved…” adage. Those pennies really do add up, even after just a couple of years!) 

Most families end up covering just over 40% of college costs with a combination of savings and income, according to a national study by Ipsos and Sallie Mae. Your child will likely get scholarships, grants and loans as well.

What can you do as a parent? 

Don’t forget about how helpful meeting with a financial advisor can be. If you can, do it before your first child’s a senior so you can develop a comprehensive plan to determine what’s best for your family’s financial circumstances. In some cases, financial advisors can recommend how to reallocate your assets, which can be helpful before you file the FAFSA. (It can help you qualify for more aid.)

Also, don’t discount your earning power. Your earning power may be tremendous during the course of a 10-month period. Remember that you can always figure out how much your paycheck can cover and submit money (even if it’s just a little bit!) to help pay for college. 

You Can Do This!

I always admire the Andriuskevicius triplets’ parents because they handled having three kids in school all at once with such grace. They took a deep breath and handled the costs through a combination of grants, scholarships, cash and loans. All three kids made it through college (and incidentally, the “oldest” triplet ended up student teaching in my daughter’s first-grade classroom. A fun connection!

Thinking about putting more than one student in college at once can feel like plopping yourself into an icy stream. But it’s doable. Jigsaw the puzzle of all the options together. Consider how you can break it down, and remember, having more than one student in school can be a benefit, not a drawback.

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How to Help Your Soon-to-Be Freshman Navigate Options for this Fall

How to Help Your Soon-to-Be Freshman Navigate Options for this Fall

I loved move-in day at our college. As admission counselors, we’d walk around the campus with our list of students. We’d find them in their assigned residence halls and welcome them as they lugged their futons and TVs from the car. We shook hands with their grinning dads and teary moms and even wore shirts that read, “Put Box Here” so families would, indeed, put boxes in our arms.

It was so exciting and always felt like a real celebration.

I can’t help but imagine the booooorrrrring move-in day this year. What’s it going to be like? Masks instead of “Put Box Here” tees? No more cookies and lemonade? Sanitized residence hall keys? (Well, actually, yes, I hope all of those things happen.)

Fall semester normally happens around Labor Day, and for many schools, that’s still the case. Of course, this year presents some stickier situations. You may have painstakingly helped your child make a college decision pre-COVID-19. Now, are you sure it was the right one?

One mom of a soon-to-be first-year student said to me, “My daughter heard from her university that they will have staggered eating times in the dining hall and they’re looking into possibly staggering the days of the week that kids attend face-to-face classes. I’m not sure whether the school itself is making the right decisions. I’m tempted to have my daughter sit out for this whole year, but I’m not sure that’s the best approach, either.”

Here are some truths:

  1. Nobody really knows how this virus will behave over the coming months.
  2. You may not know what to do. 
  3. It’s really easy to feel uncertain when you read expert opinions that explicitly state that it’s a mistake to go back to college in the fall. (There are some out there!)

Two-thirds of colleges are planning to welcome back students in person, while only seven percent are planning to hold classes only online, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is tracking the plans of lots of institutions.

Let’s say the school your child is planning to attend intends to open per usual. Should your child go? Luckily, there’s more than one option. You may have strong opinions (and so might your student!) which may require lots of family discussions. 

Option #1: Your Child Can Attend College as Originally Planned

Your child can certainly attend the school he originally chose as a high school senior, but life on campus will be very different. He might not even realize how drastic the changes might be. Here are some changes you can discuss with your soon-to-be first year (though all of this might be hard to visualize):

  1. Temperatures will be checked daily.
  2. Students may have to sign a housing contract and anyone who signs may not get a room.
  3. Your child may be required to wear a face mask indoors except in residence hall rooms or bathrooms.
  4. Your student will be required to physically distance from everyone.
  5. Anyone who doesn’t comply with the rules may face ejection from campus.
  6. Gatherings and extracurricular activities will be banned or limited.
  7. Dining hall food options will be only for grab-and-go items and there will be no bunched groups in any cafeterias. You may see staggered meal times.
  8. Social distancing will be imposed between professors and students.
  9. Students will only be allowed to enter and exit in certain doorways.
  10. Commons areas will be closed.
  11. Not everyone may go back to campus. Some campuses have discussed only having freshmen and seniors back on campus.

In an effort to prepare, some schools have even mailed special coronavirus kits to students, complete with face masks, thermometers and more. 

For those that will open, when is fall semester in college this year? Your child may not start till October or later as colleges and universities work to prioritize the health and safety of students, staff, faculty and their communities.

Option #2: Your Child Can Opt for Online Classes

If the school your child plans to attend is open and teaching online, your student can choose to stay home and take online classes. 

Note that while colleges and universities should be commended for a quick shift to online learning this past spring, the majority of that transition happened quickly. In addition, most students had already been on campus for a half of a semester and those students were familiar with the professor and how each class was being taught. 

In other words, online learning may not be a great start to a first-year experience. It’ll be more difficult for students to tap into writing, tutoring, career counseling and other resources instrumental to student success. This can be a major hurdle for vulnerable students. 

Furthermore, studies have shown that students who attend video lectures on the internet end up with a lower average test score, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. One particular study showed that Hispanic students, male students and students with low ACT scores and GPAs didn’t fare as well.

Option #3: Your Student Can Choose a Different, Less Expensive College and Do Online Classes There

The benefit to this is, of course, is that it’s cheaper! (A great reason to celebrate, right?!) 

The danger of this option (in my opinion) is that your student might never go back to the school he or she originally chose. This may be unfortunate if your family carefully chose the original school.

The less expensive school may have wonderful programs and have every bit as wonderful of resources as the original school. However, make sure the following are available:

  • A high four-year graduation rate
  • High retention rate after freshman year (in other words, do students go back after freshman year?)
  • High internship and job placement rate
  • Transferable AP and college credits (particularly if your child wants to transfer back to the original college) — you’ve got to do deep research here!
  • Quality of online instruction may need to be evaluated 

More elite (read: more expensive) colleges aren’t always better. I always chuckle when I come across this older study, from 1999:

Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale compared students who entered Ivy League and similar schools in 1976 with students who entered less prestigious colleges the same year. Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a moderately selective school. 

Here’s the kicker: These students had the same income 20 years later as the elite college grads. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income “varied little, no matter which type of college they attended.” 

The student was responsible for the success — not the school.

I think that’s a great reminder in this context.

Option #4: Your Student Can Take a Gap Year

I’ve never actually been a huge fan of taking a gap year between high school and college. I always considered a gap year to be a great way to lose focus and never go to college. Several of my work-study seniors would take a gap year between college and graduate school and that’s a different story. I loved it when they did that because they already had their degrees. 

This year, my opinion changed. If there was any other time to take a gap year, this is it.

By the way, what’s the techy definition of a gap year? In short, it’s a semester or year of experiential learning, typically taken after high school, usually prior to postsecondary education, to deepen professional and personal awareness.

Aaaand, what’s the No. 1 thing you usually associate a gap year with? Yep, travel. Gap years usually mean backpacking Europe, mission trips to South America and more. That probably won’t happen this year. So, here’s what your child’s gap year could look like this year: 

Learn a new language. (Admittedly, you could argue that you can do that in college.) If your child wants to tackle it, he can check out courses on Udemy or Coursera.

Become more familiar with a subject your child has always wanted to know more about. Now’s the time to become self-directed.

Cultivate soft skills! Oh, my goodness, soft skills are so important. Cross-cultural communication, problem-solving, adaptability! Why not build and nurture soft skills during a gap year? Emotional intelligence looks splendid on a resume — why not work on it? 

Launch those entrepreneurial endeavors. Why not encourage starting a business? If you’ve noticed that your child is entrepreneurial by nature (remember how he sold or traded his snacks at summer camp and came home with a really great baseball glove?) you might encourage those entrepreneurial skills. There’s no question that COVID-19 has been terrible, but it’s also provided more opportunities than ever for entrepreneurs. Now’s the time to figure out what people are missing and need.

Chill out from academics for a while. This can be a good thing if your child’s not going to do well with online learning. Remember, it can be more difficult if you child can’t tap into a writing center, tutor (or flesh-and-blood instructors!) and other resources instrumental to student success. 

A gap year can give your child the opportunity to learn about opportunities. Why not learn at an early age that life is so goooood?  

Making the Decision

So, knowing all this, what should your child do? How can you help your student decide? 

It’s really going to be important to have lots of discussions. You may have one idea about how this fall will go in your head and your child might have a completely different idea. “Mom, I signed up to go to this college — why don’t you want me to go? I’ll wear my mask!” 

On the other hand, your child might say, “I don’t want to go to school there. It’s not going to look the same at all as our visit.” In that case, your child will be totally right — but you still might want him to go to college because you’re not sure if he’ll have the same motivation a year from now.

What to Do if You Clash Over a Final Approach

Contact the college if you, your child and your family are having a hard time making a final decision about what to do. The college wants to know what your concerns are and wants to do whatever it can to help you. 

It’s okay to get help beyond that. Talk to your spouse or partner, parents, friends, a mental health counselor. Remember one of the truths I listed at the top? Here it is again: You may not know what to do — and that’s okay.

Start a lengthy conversation with your child and listen. Listen, listen, listen. Remember, whatever decision you make doesn’t have to be permanent. Your child can still go to the college he originally planned to attend, even if it’s just a little later on.

How to Launch Your Rising Senior’s Successful College Search Right Now

How to Launch Your Rising Senior’s Successful College Search Right Now

It’s almost senior year! What an exciting time to get started on the college search! 

I’m getting questions from families about whether it’s too late to launch a full-scale college search right as a rising senior. (Grrrr… COVID-19!) (By the way, I used to use the term “rising senior” all the time when I was in admission… so much so that one kid stopped me to ask, “What is a rising senior?” and I had to laugh.)

Anyway, repeat after me: It’s definitely not too late. Trust me, I used to counsel second-semester seniors who still weren’t sure where they wanted to go to school! 

For example, meet Grace. She decided during the tail end of her senior year that the school she’d originally chosen wasn’t the right one for her. Terri, her admission counselor at our college, texted and emailed her often, dazzled Grace and her parents during the college visit and connected her with about a dozen people who worked at the college. 

Grace could see herself succeeding and thriving and signed right up. She made the best decision ever and is now the marketing director at a regional hospital.

The goal is to make the right decision the first time. If your child wants to transfer, here’s what happens in an exhausting swoop: 

  1. You have to help your child figure out where to transfer.
  2. You’ll need to go on visits together all over again.
  3. You’ll have to cross-check which credits transfer.
  4. The stress! It’ll involve double the amount of yoga you usually pay for.

Trust me, it’s a headache — and I always think of the student who transferred six times. (I’m not even kidding.) 

This guide will help you get your child prepared for college starting today. Here are the steps I recommend taking.

What's a rising senior to be doing right now? Find out — now!

1. Talk with your student.

Have as many conversations about college as your teen will allow. It’s a great idea to get on the same page as soon as possible. You might find: 

  1. You’re not thrilled about the schools on your teen’s list. Check out how to be happy about your teen’s college choices
  2. Together, you’re in total agreement about where your child wants to go to school.

I’m constantly reminded of my dentist’s experience with her son. She wanted him to look at schools far away. 

He ended up looking at one college in town and a university about an hour away. (I haven’t had a chance to talk to her to find out where he went.)

Make sure it’s a family discussion! You want to launch the college search with a well-intentioned plan. When you don’t have a plan, it’s easy to start bouncing around like a pinball. It might not take too long before you start feeling disorganized with the college search.

2. Come up with a plan. 

What’s the plan? You might not have any idea, and that’s okay. But how much better do you feel when you have a plan? I know I do.

In fact, I have an intense personal interest in goal setting. I really like to have specific goals for pretty much everything, whether they’re daily goals, weekly goals or even goals 10 years from now. Here are some great visit goals you and your child may want to put in place:

  1. Come up with a short list of schools to visit by July 15.
  2. Contact admission counselors at each of these schools with your child by July 30.
  3. Visit those schools in person by October 30 (pending visit restrictions due to COVID-19, of course).

Other things you might want to map out: Application goals. Scholarship goals. Can you think of others?

3. Sign up for the ACT or SAT. (Or maybe not!)

Breaking news! The ACT or SAT might not be a requirement for the class of 2021, thanks to COVID-19. Many admission experts believe that SAT and ACT scores predict academic success less often than high school academic performance. In addition, ACT and SAT scores typically skew favorably toward families with higher income and create opportunity gaps for African American and Latino students. 

What does this mean? It means that admission offices could forever change admission entrance requirements. This is big news!

It’s officially possible to get into half of all Ivy League institutions, high-ranked liberal arts colleges, almost all universities in Virginia and all universities in California without an ACT or SAT score. Harvard University recently disclosed that it won’t require test scores from the class of 2021.

The June ACT test was cancelled, the SAT’s next offered test date is August 29, and it remains to be seen whether that test occurs. Check FairTest to find out which colleges require the test, whether it’s optional or flexible for all or many applicants who recently graduated or will graduate from U.S. high schools.

You could also contact admission offices at the schools your child’s interested in to learn more.

4. Start planning for college visits.

How many college visits should you plan for? 

Simple! As many schools as your child is interested in. I’ve known students who visit up to 15 schools and others who visit one. My recommendation is to visit one small, one medium and one large school to get a comprehensive overview of all of your choices.

By the way, the goals I listed above will work great! Just adjust the dates as needed: 

  1. Come up with a short list of schools to visit by July 15.
  2. Contact admission counselors at each of these schools by July 30.
  3. Visit those schools in person by October 30, pending visit restrictions due to COVID-19, of course.

One question I get a lot is whether your child should visit a school before or after he applies, and the answer is that it doesn’t really matter. An application doesn’t commit your child to a school unless your child has applied to a college early decision. Early decision (ED) plans are binding. Your student must attend the college if he is accepted as an ED applicant. (The application deadline is usually around November, though schools may have changed their policies due to COVID-19. Make sure you check!)

5. Have the money talk.

College seemed a long way off when your child was a toddler, didn’t it? If the years have flown by with not a lot of savings under your belt, that’s okay. You can still build a financial plan that meets your future needs.

Have you and your child had the money talk yet? It may be time. (Check out 5 Top Tips for Easing Financial Fears About Paying for College.)

I talked with the very talented Ksenia Yudina, founder and CEO of UNest. She recommends taking a good look at your current expenses and spending with your child. “It’s likely changed through the pandemic. Establish a realistic dollar amount that you can set aside each month,” she says. (Yes! You can still save even if college is just a year away. Every penny counts.)

Yudina suggests getting your other family members involved, too. “Don’t keep your family financial goals and aspirations a secret,” says Yudina. “Share them with grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, friends and have them contribute to your child’s savings plan. Dollars invested in your plan will go way further than gifts like clothes!”

She also says to teach your kids the value of money. “We’ve all heard it: ‘Money doesn’t grow on trees.’ It may be a cliche, but it is a good starting point in building a solid set of values in your kids. Getting the balance right can be challenging. Go overboard and your kids could become obsessed with money. Being too lax can lead to kids that don’t appreciate the sacrifices you have made, and that don’t know how to budget or spend money wisely,” Yudina adds.

It’s a good time to talk about loans — how you feel about them and what they can do for your child’s future.

By the way, if you and your child will need to borrow, there’s good news for student loan borrowers. Federal Direct student loans may continue to dip for student borrowers. The Federal Parent PLUS loan and private student loans may continue to lower.

6. Communicate with your child’s school counselor. 

Are classes ready to go for this fall? (You know, despite that uh… abrupt end to junior year?) Make sure you and your child touch base with your teen’s school counselor. You can share which schools your child’s looking at to make sure your child’s classes are right on track. Here’s a general guide — but check with the colleges on your child’s short list:


It’s highly recommended to take four years of English classes, so encourage your high schooler not to skimp on that last year of literature! Any class where your child will study writing and literature is a bonus because just about every career will require your child to write well. English classes also encourage reading, analysis and communication skills.


Same for four years of math! Your child might find that she’s more successful in college if she takes four (not just three) years of math. It’s easy to forget certain concepts and a bit of momentum if your child doesn’t carry on through year four. Math classes should include at least four of the following six classes (in order):

  • Pre-algebra
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Algebra II or trigonometry
  • Precalculus
  • Calculus


It’s okay to squeak by with three years of laboratory science classes but a fourth year is still a bonus. Make sure your child’s taken the following:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics

Social Studies

Most colleges require two years of social studies, like world history and U.S. history. Other social science options include:

  • Government
  • Sociology
  • Geography
  • Psychology

Foreign Language

Lots of colleges require a minimum of two years of language study while in high school, and it doesn’t matter which foreign language your child chooses to study.


A small number of colleges require one year of visual or performing arts prior to admission.

Next, take a look at your child’s credentials with the school counselor and learn the colleges’ admission rates, median GPAs and SAT and ACT scores. 

  • Does your child have a reach school on his list? A college should be considered a reach for your kiddo if his test scores and GPA are below (or at the lower end of) what a college typically accepts. 
  • Does his GPA align with that of accepted students at colleges? Bingo! You’ve identified a target school!
  • Finally, a safety school is one that accepts a high percentage of applicants. Your child’s GPA and test scores go above and beyond the qualifications for a safety school.

You may want to start a handy spreadsheet to identify these schools and continue to add to the list. The college and career counselor at your child’s school might be able and interested to help you add to the list. When colleges visit your child’s high school, many of them take time to sit down with the school counselor and help them understand what that school offers.

Here’s a quick checklist of conversation topics you can bring up with your child’s school counselor: 

  • High school schedule for senior year
  • AP or college credit classes
  • Colleges on your child’s radar and any others that the counselor would recommend
  • College admission questions
  • College application timeline questions
  • Scholarship and financial aid options — particularly local scholarships

7. Get your teen excited about scholarships!

Don’t forget to ask about local scholarships when you talk with the school counselor. School counselors are the first people many local businesses alert when they decide to create a scholarship. For example, let’s say a local dentist creates a scholarship for students who plan to go into dentistry. The dentist usually calls up the school and the call gets transferred to the school counselor.

The College Board also offers a scholarship search tool you and your teen can look at together. 

Finally, don’t forget to check into the numerous scholarships available at just about every college in the United States. You’ll want to ask detailed questions about scholarships and how to get them when you do your visits. You don’t have to wait until visits, though. You can do lots of research now. Call or email the admission office and ask about scholarships so you know what to expect. 

It’s never, ever too early to start applying for scholarships. Summer before senior year is a great time to make that happen.

8. Create your FSA ID.

What’s an FSA ID? It’s a username and password you must create if you want to file the FAFSA. It gives you access to Federal Student Aid’s online systems and can serve as your legal signature. 

Now, you can’t officially file the FAFSA until October 1, but you can still create your FSA ID. Put “filing the FAFSA” on the calendar! You’ll also need to gather up the following: 

  • Social Security numbers for you, your student’s other parent and your student
  • Alien Registration numbers (if you’re not U.S. citizens)
  • Your federal income tax returns, W-2s, and other records of money you earn, ,though you may be able to transfer your federal tax return information into your FAFSA using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. This makes pulling in information from your FAFSA really simple.
  • Bank statements and records of investments (if applicable)
  • Records of untaxed income (if applicable)

9. Start reaching out to people.

Reach out to an admission counselor, financial aid officer, coach — even if visits aren’t officially happening right now. Call admission offices and ask whether you and your son or daughter will be able to visit with these people using tech options. Make a list of questions you and your high school junior would like to ask, including:

  • What are the majors and minors the college offers?
  • What are the results we can expect after majoring in X? What’s the employment rate/graduate school acceptance rate? 
  • How are semesters divided up? Do you have a May term or traditional semesters?
  • What are the opportunities within athletic programs?
  • What are your social and extracurricular opportunities?
  • How does my child get plugged into internship opportunities?
  • What’s the total cost of attendance? How much financial aid do students at your school typically receive?
  • What’s campus life like (including meal plans and housing)?
  • What are your admission requirements?
  • Can you explain the application process (including whether that will change due to COVID-19)? When are your application deadlines?

These questions are just the tip of the iceberg! I could literally think of hundreds. It’s so important to start building relationships during the college search. Learn more about why building relationships must happen during the college search

10. Have your high schooler update that resume.

This is a great exercise because it may be necessary for college applications and it also helps your child build his elevator speech for college interviews. 

Many colleges encourage your high schooler to interview with an admission representative or alumnus during the application process, either on campus or in the area in which you live. The interview is an important part of the application process for some schools and certain colleges and universities even have a very specific timeline for them. This may have changed during COVID-19, so add that list of questions for the admission office: “Where, when and how will admission interviews take place?”

You may want to help your child proof his resume before he ships it off to schools.

11. Start those applications!

This is the slowest summer on record and now that everything’s cancelled (no baseball games, no summer camp counseling duties!) your child might find some quiet time to sit down with several applications. 

Check with each college your student is interested in and find out about each college’s application deadlines. 

Target applications at schools your child’s reasonably sure he’s interested in. Remember, in most cases, applying to a college doesn’t mean your high schooler must commit to a school. Think of college applications kind of like sending a resume to jobs. Apply if there’s a serious interest! 

Tackle One Task at a Time

Feeling overwhelmed by what’s on your rising senior’s plate? It’s okay. It’s okay to feel like you’re behind because you weren’t able to get to go on college visits this past spring. Your child may even be feeling down in the dumps because he missed out on junior year track — and therefore couldn’t boost his times for college coaches. 

Just remember that everyone’s in the same boat. Take a look at the list of goals you put into place during Step 2 and put some time into crossing off each item on the checklist. Also, don’t think you have to take on all these steps in the order I’ve listed them. Your child might want to tackle all of his applications first — and that’s great!  

How to Save for College AND for Other Things You Really Want

How to Save for College AND for Other Things You Really Want

I vividly remember working with a student whose dad said, “Whaddya mean, it costs $XX,XXX for my daughter to go to college? I’m not giving up golf and vacations!”

He was joking, he was joking. (I think.)

At any rate, I know that on some level, just about everyone can relate. You may think, “When do I get to do what I want to do? When my kids are out of college? Uh, no thanks. I’ll be what, 70 by then?”

Of course kids are a blessing and you’re willing to sacrifice for them.

But is it possible to have it all? Is it possible to pay for college and help your kids through a very expensive part of life? Without taking out oodles of loans?

Yes, it is! Yes, it is. You can do this — even if college is coming at you at 60 miles per hour. It just might take some creativity and careful planning (and maybe a side hustle to boost your bank account). Here’s how it can be done.

How to save for college and other things you really want? Yeah, good question, right? Here's what you need to know.


My husband has been hankering after a garage for the better part of a decade. Actually, I take that back. He wants a shop. A place to store his tools, a car project and a boat. 

Do you need a lot of things all at once? Maybe your husband wants a new car and a shop, you want a new kitchen and you want to pay for college all at once. Life is short, right? You deserve it. You’ve worked hard all your life. But have you asked yourself what you really need? 

Consider these statistics, directly from fee.org

  1. The average American home contains 300,000 items.
  2. One out of four houses with two-car garages is so stuffed a car can’t even fit in the garage. (I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m one of the four!)
  3. Each American throws away over 68 pounds of clothing per year.
  4. Americans spend about $1.2 trillion a year on nonessential items.

I’m not saying that the “things” you want aren’t essential. It’s a great exercise to decide your priorities and figure out what’s essential. I know from experience that prioritizing what you want is easier said than done.

How to Evaluate Your Priorities

My husband’s shop isn’t done and he’s getting increasingly nervous about the lack of time he has to build it. In fact, I can almost hear his train of thought: “It’s almost already July and the cement floor isn’t poured yet… When am I going to build the thing because it’s going to be December before we know it? The truck will have to go into storage somewhere else because there’s already snow on the ground… AAAH!”

Poor guy.

But in the grand scheme of things, the shop doesn’t have to be built now. In fact, he could wait another year or two if he really needed to. However, he wants it now so he has enough time to work on a car (which could take years). He wants to be able to have it ready so he can teach our son all about restoring cars as well.

So, there’s a bigger priority in the works here — son and dad time. Priorities go deeper than wants. In fact, they drive to the very heart of our most important values.

How do the things you want align with your priorities and values? Here are some examples. You may want to:

  • Install a pool to spend more time with family.
  • Build a bigger dining room to entertain and encourage closer friendships.
  • Help your child with college so he or she’s debt free after college.
  • Go on an anniversary trip to become closer to your spouse or partner.

So, what are yours? Getting clear on your priorities can often help you decide how to put your money into pieces and parts that achieve those goals.  

Use Your Money to Fulfill Your Priorities

Let’s say you decide your priorities are:

  1. Paying for college.
  2. Building a new shop.
  3. Painting your cabinets (instead of getting a new kitchen). 
  4. The car will have to wait. 

The reality is, we all have a finite supply of money and lots and lots of buckets. 

When you discuss your priorities with your family, maybe you agree that your priority is to make sure your children don’t start their working years in debt and that you want to be able to help them pay for college.

Maybe you decide the full kitchen upgrade is a want, not a need. You can cook just as well and entertain friends in the kitchen you have. Furthermore, you do some research and realize that a full kitchen upgrade won’t give you a great return on your investment when you sell down the road.

You realize you can get along with the van you have. You realize your jealousy of your next-door neighbor’s shiny new van was getting the best of you. (Due to the large scrape on the front bumper from backing out of the garage too quickly. Yes, this is coming from personal experience. My van actually does have a recent large scrape and rock-chipped windshield.) 

On the other hand, what if your priorities are different? Let’s say your main priority is to spend more time road tripping with your family. In that case, the van may have gone in the first priority slot and paying for college might move to the second slot on the list, like this:

  1. Buy a new car.
  2. Save for college.
  3. Build a shop.
  4. Paint the kitchen cabinets.

Determine How You’ll Juggle Various Goals

Once you determine your priorities, figure out how you’ll get them done. Have some fun with this! It can be like a fun puzzle to determine how you’ll get to those things you really want. Here are some ideas of how you can go about doing it. 

  1. Estimate how much money you’ll need for each goal you’d like to achieve. It might cost more over time for things like college but there are lots of calculators that can help you estimate how much it will cost later on. 
  2. Ask yourself how much of your savings you’ll need and when you’ll need it. Do you need the money soon? If so, you’ll need to organize your finances so you can save the money more quickly.
  3. Create an online savings schedule that aligns with your paydays. Decide how much you’ll swoop into a savings account immediately after you get paid. If you do it regularly and often, it’ll become a habit and you won’t miss that money. (Promise!)
  4. Don’t forget to create a separate account. You don’t want to spend the money you’ve earmarked for other goals, so make sure it goes into a different account. It also keeps you going! When you see how much money is in your “other goals” account, it’s inspiring.
  5. Treat this extra savings like a bill. In other words, treat money for your extra savings as if it’s a required payment like a utility bill. Make sure the payments are automatic so they come out of your paycheck right away, every time.
  6. Ask yourself whether you need a side hustle. You might need another source of income to float your project. What are your talents? Can you brainstorm extra ways to make money? It can help you hit your goals much faster if you place all of your extra money in your savings account to reach your goals.

Tips for College Savings

Guess what? The tips for saving for college are the same as the steps listed above for saving for other goals. 

What might be a little trickier is determining how much to save. This can get confusing because you might not be sure what type of college your child will attend — community college, state university, liberal arts college, etc. 

In other words, how much goes in the bucket?

The rule of thumb is to save as much as you can. 

Even if your child only has two years of high school left, it’s worth saving as much as you can. You might not want to sock a lot into a regular savings account because there are other types of accounts that offer tax benefits. You can consider channeling that money into the following types of accounts: 

  • Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) or Education IRAs: These are tax-deferred accounts with earnings and withdrawals which may be free from federal income tax if used for qualified education expenses. Contribution limits apply.
  • 529 Plan: 529 plans allow you to invest for your child’s education or even your own. You can make sizeable contributions every year and also shift portions of assets in a 529 to future generations.
  • UTMA or UGMA (Uniform Gift to Minors Act): An UTMA or UGMA offers a way to transfer securities to a minor. You’ll call it an UTMA or UGMA, depending on which state your child resides. 

There are various pluses and minuses with each type of plan, and it’s a great idea to consult with a financial advisor about which type of plan is best for you. Your best bet is to make it automatic, just like you do with your other savings accounts. (Who knew you could save for a kitchen just as effectively as you can saving for college?)

Staying on Track

Part of staying motivated is making sure you check your progress. Let’s say you funnel each of your savings streams into different accounts. Keep a fun tally system on the bulletin board in your office or on a spreadsheet so you know exactly how much money you’ve saved at any given time. It keeps you motivated and excited as you see those numbers climb. You can go old school with a Post-it Note and jot down all your numbers. You can also use a tool like Personal Capital or Mint to track your spending and savings. (I use both.)

You might not be able to save as much money as you want if you have several goals on your plate. You might feel like you’re getting nowhere fast if you’re saving for four different items. The buckets fill up a lot more slowly when you’re trying to funnel your finite extra income into four different streams.

So, how do you stay motivated when it seems like there are only pennies in the bottoms of four different buckets? Great question. Why not tackle your smallest payment first? 

For some reason, this reminds me of the Debt Snowball method. The Debt Snowball method means you tackle your smallest debt amount first. You get an instant win by paying that off, then move on to your larger debt amounts. 

In other words, save for one thing (the smallest amount), then the next largest amount, and so on. That way, you only tackle one or two things at a time and you get quick wins along the way. 

How to Get Through It When You’re Over It

Sigh. Saving for things often loses its excitement really fast. I remember a long time ago, one of my friends was really gung-ho about saving for a new car and I was really excited for her. She’d mapped out a robust savings plan for how she’d have her beautiful new (used) car in a year. 

A week later, I went over to her house and a new car was sitting in the driveway. 

She’d caved and gotten a loan. “I just couldn’t wait anymore,” she told me. “I wanted it now.”

It’s easy to take out loans for the things you really want, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s necessary — you may need to take out a loan because you’ve got no other choice. What else do you do when you don’t have the money and your car breaks down? What else do you do when your child’s ready for college and you haven’t saved quite enough? 

Anyone at any life stage can experience this. But I always encourage trying to save for the “extras.” Even the things that fulfill your priorities and values but that you don’t absolutely need right away. My husband’s shop is a great example. 

You Can Do This!

So, if you want that [kitchen, boat, new bathroom, she shed] but college is coming soon, now’s a great time to start making a plan. And it’s still possible to make a plan if college is catapulting right around the corner (maybe it’s in just a few months)! 

You may just need to heavily consider how you’ll make it happen more quickly. You might even need to come up with a more robust savings plan early on so you can prep for those college bills and the things you really want.

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