Junior year is here! Yiiiiiiiikes! Whether you want to bury your head like an ostrich or tackle it like a linebacker, the reality is here: Two years till college starts.
As a parent, the crazy busy-ness of high school may have gotten even busier because now the time crunch descends. Between AP classes, extracurricular activities and homework every night, junior year is one of the busiest years leading up to college because your student is trying to do all the things!
You may wonder exactly what junior year should look like in terms of prepping for college. It takes planning and prep work to make junior year go as smoothly as possible! Read more for your complete college prep list for high school juniors! I’ve compiled a few things to keep top of mind with this junior year of high school checklist.
Beginning of the Year: Speak with Your Child’s School Counselor
You don’t need to call up the school counselor or college and career counselor every other week. However, it’s a great idea to speak with or meet the school counselor in person at the beginning of the year. He or she will allow you to ask questions about core subjects, already-scheduled courses and more. Make sure you talk about a healthy college prep standard for core subjects:
- Four years of English
- Three years of math (though four is better!)
- Three years of science
- Two or three years of social studies or history
Make sure your child’s college and career counselor knows what schools your child put on his list up until now (it’s okay if it changes later) so he takes courses that align well with that college’s requirements.
Don’t leave it up to the school counselor, however. It requires sleuthing on your part, too. Get on the website of the colleges your child is interested in and find out the requirements for each. Then communicate that with the school counselor so you’re all on the same page.
All Year: Grades, Grades, Graaaades
Beef up those grades. Colleges and universities want to see them whether you agree they represent your child well or not. Has COVID-19 caused your child to fall behind just a little bit? (Is it possible to learn Shakespeare over Zoom without the opportunity to talk to a teacher face-to-face? Hm….)
Keep on top of the college preparation process both during high school junior year and if your child needs help, make sure that occurs.
All Year: Get Going on Extracurricular Activities
What does your child love to do? Or maybe even more importantly, what does he really not like doing? Sometimes knowing what we don’t like to do is more important than knowing what we enjoy. It can help later on when your child makes major life decisions.
If your child hasn’t gotten super involved in extracurricular activities in high school, it’s not too late to get involved. Also, don’t forget to encourage your child to look for leadership positions within those extracurricular activities.
All Year: Talk About a College Savings Plan
Don’t have a college savings plan set up yet? No worries. You can always start one now! It’s not too late to put a plan in place even though your child’s a junior.
If you’ve already been contributing to a college savings account, discuss with your student and other family members how you’ll continue to contribute to that account. Evaluate how far the money in the account will go to pay for college. How far will your child get on the amount of money you’ve saved? Do you need more or can you pay for some of it out of pocket? How creative can you get with paying for it out-of-pocket, through side hustles and more?
Finally, have the conversation about how much it’ll cost your child out of pocket.
All Year: Talk About Colleges
What kind of school is your child thinking about? A vocational-technical school? Community college? Four-year college or the military? What do you think fits your child best? If you just know your child will perform best in a private liberal arts college but all she wants to do is look at state universities, it might require some discussion and give and take on your part.
Talk about careers but don’t focus too much on those or majors — your child will likely change her major!
Let’s say your child really doesn’t know what kind of school to look into because he or she has no idea what he or she wants to do for a living. I normally don’t advocate for picking a school based on major, but let’s say your child is really interested in a trade, like welding. In this case, I advise job shadowing because it’s one of the best ways for your child to determine what type of school to choose.
On the other hand, if your child knows she’s destined for a university — she’s had her mind made up that she’s going to a four-year school — don’t worry so much about the major. Pick the school based on its own merits and opportunities and the major will follow.
All Year: Collect Information
Gather college information through college fairs, college nights and any special alumni. (Did your next-door neighbor’s child go to the No. 1 school on your child’s list? Set up some time to chat!)
Make a list of schools your child would like to visit and keep that updated. Check out my free spreadsheet for the college search!
Note a number of things on the spreadsheet, including cost, merit scholarship requirements, size, location, distance from home and more.
Fall: Help Your Child with that Resume!
Do you know a thing or two about putting together a resume? Stick to what you know, then get a professional to look at it if you’re not confident. One of the best things you can do is proofread the resume for silly mistakes like spelling errors.
Case in point: When I was an admission counselor, I’ll never forget how one kid wrote “Delivered toilet trees to the community center” on his resume instead of “toiletries.”
Don’t let your kid be the “toilet tree” kid.
Don’t forget to remind your child to add the following:
- Any awards
- Community service achievements
- Academic accomplishments
- Work details
- Anything else your child participates in
Fall: Get Ready for the ACT or SAT — or Not
Does your child need to take the ACT or SAT? You and your child need to decide together whether it’s worth it to take it.
In any normal year, your high school junior would study for the ACT or SAT with gusto. You’d encourage him to start studying for the SAT/ACT and SAT subject tests as soon as the calendar turned to September.
Your best bet is to get on an email chain or get on the phone with admission counselors to help you decide whether your child needs to take one of these tests. If you decide it’s important, start studying using practice exams.
Fall: Take AP Classes
AP classes are standardized exams designed to measure how well your child mastered the content and skills of a specific AP course. Your child takes an end-of-year paper-and-pencil exam to evaluate how well he did on the test.
The benefit? Most U.S. colleges grant credit, advanced placement or both for qualifying AP scores.
Ask about International Baccalaureate, CLEP or dual enrollment courses as well.
Fall: Take the PSAT
The PSAT/NMSQT is offered in the fall. How to get ready for test day: Ask your child’s school counselor when her class will take the PSAT/NMSQT and check out a free practice test. Make sure she eats a healthy breakfast the day of the exam!
Spring: Take the AP Exams
Your child can take the AP Exams every year in May at many high schools and exam centers. Check with your school counselor to learn more.
Spring: Take the ACT or SAT — or Not
If your child elects to take the ACT or SAT or the college your child is looking into requests it, sign up for the ACT or SAT and have your child take one of those tests — not both. Shoot for anytime in the spring. There’s no reason you shouldn’t opt for April for the ACT or March for the SAT.
Spring: Plan the Senior Year Schedule
Talk with the school counselor about putting together a class schedule for senior year. Encourage your child not to take the easy way out — take classes that aren’t a cake walk during senior year, however tempting it is.
Spring: Plan Campus Visits
Here’s how I advise planning campus visits:
- Use the website only to look up the phone number for the admission office at that school.
- Call the admission office and talk to the campus visit coordinator or someone in a similar role. The campus visit coordinator schedules your visits, particularly if they’re personal campus visits, which are one-on-one visits.
- Talk in detail about your options. Does your child prefer a group campus visit or a personal campus visit?
- Ask about specific requests, like meeting with a specific individual on campus.
- Schedule the visit and go!
All Year: Apply for Scholarships
There’s no law that says your child must wait until he’s a senior to apply for scholarships. Now’s the time to hop online or have your child ask the school counselor if he can apply for community-based scholarships.
I recommend using the Scholarship System to help your child get scholarships — it’s a comprehensive system to get judges to notice your child’s application.
The Scholarship System will give your family all the tools you need to find the perfect scholarships, create competitive applications, save tons of time on the process and actually get scholarships. Check it out! You can join for just $1!
All Year: Work on Building Those Relationships
Everyone needs to work on all relationships — with school counselors, admission counselors at colleges, teachers at school (they’ll write your child’s letters of recommendation!) and everyone else you can think of. It’s good in general to build positive relationships, so do your best to make connections with those around you and encourage your child to do the same.
Build these relationships without ulterior motives, too — “If I make friends with this scholarship official, maybe he’ll give me the scholarship…”
No, none of that!
Make genuine connections and friendships without thinking about how you and your child will benefit from the relationship with employers, coaches, activity leaders or other adults.
Be the Cheerleader
It doesn’t end after the last day of junior year — in some ways, you’re just getting started! Continue to learn more about financial aid, work on visiting more colleges over the summer and write down all deadlines for college applications, college scholarships and more. Encourage your child to apply to colleges the minute applications open — some open over the summer!
Give your child so much encouragement because your high schooler works so hard during this process (hopefully this junior year of high school checklist helps). It’s not easy, especially with so many deadlines, things to remember and different requirements for all colleges.
The former president of my alma mater and the college I worked for always told a story about his daughter’s overnight visit at his alma mater, the Air Force Academy. He dropped her off, glowing because he knew she knew what to look for in a college.
The daughter he picked up the next day, he always said in his speeches, “Was not the same daughter I’d dropped off.”
She was quiet on the car ride home. Toward the end, she burst out, “Dad, I don’t want to go to the Air Force Academy.”
“So don’t go there,” he responded. “Go to Rice.”
So she did. Now she’s a doctor.
Heart Test. Gut Test.
Our former president always said his daughter aced the Heart/Gut Test. If she’d chosen to go to the Air Force Academy just to make her dad happy, she knew that it’d be a long, miserable four years.
Our former president truly believed that when you know deep down that it feels right, it is.
But. What about when you hear someone say this, or read quotes like this?
“You should never ignore your gut. But you should know when to rely on that gut instinct and when to safeguard against it.”
It’s harder to grasp a completely intuitive approach to the college decision. As humans, we want to make sure the decision is logical:
- A pros and cons list.
- Evidence of oodles of successful alumni.
- Statistics and proof.
But the college decision doesn’t always come down to a pros and cons list.
Why’s finding the best fit so important? Let’s dive into a couple of scenarios to illustrate why.
- Your kid does a diligent job of choosing a college. He carefully examines what he wants, visits colleges and scrutinizes every angle of the decision. Your son employs the heart test and gut test to his advantage.
- He definitely chooses the best fit for him. Your son thrives! He gets involved in activities, picks a major that is quite possibly the best match that ever existed. He adds a few mentors to his list and finds best friends for life.
- Your child happily graduates from said college and gets a great job and/or goes off to his No. 1 choice dental school (or whatever graduate school). Beautiful happy ending. You sob happily at alllll the graduations.
- Your kid doesn’t really engage in the college search — you can’t get him to move off the couch.
- He chooses a college. Not the best match in history, because it’s pretty expensive and that creates some angst. You’re paying a whopping amount because, due to his inability to get off the couch, he didn’t apply for scholarships.
- He doesn’t really apply himself. But TBH, it actually ends up going okay. His grades? He manages to squeak through! Graduation? Ditto! He says, “I’m just not a school person, Mom.” He manages to gather tons of friends along the way.
- He gets a great job after graduation and eventually becomes the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You know, he’s one of those really successful people whose teachers said he would end up as a ditch digger. Like Walt Disney.
- Truth be told, you’re just as surprised as all his poor professors. You should have known, looking back. As a kid, he showed up at Boy Scout Camp and ended up leading all the activities — not the Boy Scout leaders.
- Your daughter (just to shake it up a little) adamantly decides to go to a college based on where her boyfriend’s gonna go. (I can’t tell you how much I despised reason as an admission counselor.)
- She breaks up with said boyfriend and melts down in a puddle of existential crisis halfway through first semester. She’s six hours away, in a school that’s way too big (or way too small) or whatever. Needless to say, it’s not a Baby Bear fit. You encourage her to stick it out for at least another semester.
- Your daughter transfers out after the first semester, anyway, vowing never to see Bad Brad the Boyfriend ever again. She loses credits due to her terrible grades and in all actuality, must start over. She’s back at square one.
- She is actually unhappy at her second institution, too. She transfers again. Classes don’t transfer. By this point, she might as well still claim freshman status in college, even though she should have been at least a second-semester sophomore. Ugh. She graduates late, with more debt than she should have.
There are plenty more permutations than what I’ve covered above. And guess what? I knew a student that fit every one of these descriptions.
The process boils down to:
GUT TEST->HEART TEST->CHOOSING THE RIGHT SCHOOL->GREATER CHANCE OF GRADUATING ON TIME.
Now, did I say “greater chance of success in life” or “instant fame and fortune”?
No. Just “greater chance of graduating on time.”
Even so, that’s a big accomplishment.
Just remember, everything you can do to prepare for the heart test, gut test and ultimately, the college experience, will help your child attain the direct route to the best experience possible.
How to make sure that happens? Well, when everything strikes the right notes with your child, the diploma almost writes itself!
These things will help you accomplish all of this.
1. Visit the Campus.
Get geared up for your 16th masked campus visit: (“Yep, this is what we do now: Not breathe…”) or amp yourself up for your first non-breathing expedition.
Your kiddo can’t successfully ace the heart or gut test without stepping foot on campus.
2. Meet the People.
I know, this sounds so obvious. Duh — you want you kiddo to meet the people on campus. You meet the tour guide, right. Check.
But no, I mean really get to know the people. Ask them their whole life story. Ask them what they thought about their chosen profession as kindergarteners.
Don’t ask cursory questions like, “Do you eat every meal in the dining hall?”
Not only is that boring, it doesn’t get to the root, the heart, the real guts of the kid. Hey, the heart! The guts.
Katie effervesced. She was a tour guide on our campus and was so bubbly that I think she floated on bubbles. She was everyone’s friend and pretty much told her life story from the ground up to everyone — on every tour.
But the thing was, she wasn’t annoying. She was wonderful. Parents loved her. Every student wanted to be her friend. I think it’s because she was so real.
Encourage your student to talk to everyone in the real-est sense.
Not every tour guide can be a Katie, but seek out the Katies wherever you are on campus and whether that person’s your tour guide or not. It’s a win for all.
And don’t neglect the Katies who are librarians, admission counselors, professors, the list goes on! Talk to everyone.
My alma mater’s best ambassador works in the alumni and advancement office. She’s also the wife of one of our most popular biology professors. She’s effervesces, too.
Meet the people who effervesce.
3. Keep Semi-Quiet.
Shssshshh. Mom and dad. You’ve got to shhhhh.
Your child is trying to figure out his way.
Oh, gosh, I know I encouraged you to ask a billion questions on the college visit. But you must be quiet and kinda let your child come to you.
I’ve learned from experience that when parents try to push their opinions on their kids, it sometimes backfires. “I loved our visit at College ABC, didn’t you?” One parent says.
“I loathed College ABC. I hate its colors [or other ridiculous reason].” Says the kid.
Sometimes they might pick the school you love (yes, with the Katies!) if you don’t project too much.
Of course, this all depends on your kids’ personality.
On the other hand, if you’ve got a pretty compliant kid, you might get away with a little more effusiveness. Kids are hard, I know! Gah!
4. Talk About the Ol’ Rumbly Gut Feeling.
It’s okay to have an instinct that doesn’t make much sense. Encourage your kid to feel that. Talk about the Heart Test/Gut Test and make it a true part of the experience.
It’s kinda like picking your spouse or partner. Did you make pros and cons list as to whether you should marry him or her?
Nah, you went with your gut. Or at least, I hope you did.
Who says the college decision shouldn’t at least be somewhat about that, too?
Listen to the Heart/Gut
Now, I hear ya. You’re asking, “What if my kid doesn’t feel the effervescence? The falling in love? The ‘Yep, this is where I’m supposed to go?’”
As hard as it is to hear, your search might not be over. Or maybe you need to start a new search now that you know what to look for in a college.
Keep looking till your kiddo finds it.
Your high schooler’s busier than you. (Okay, maybe not.) But between cross country practice, homework (ugh — how hard is trig?!) and making sure those gym shorts smell Snuggle-fresh, who has time for anything else?
Even though your kiddo’s busy, it’s still important to put that math homework to good use because it could affect your child for the rest of his life.
Check this out.
When Caroline was 14 years old, she and her dad decided to invest $2,000 every year for five years. Call it a little experiment, if you will. Here’s what it looked like:
Age 14: $2,000
Age 15: $2,000
Age 16: $2,000
Age 17: $2,000
Age 18: $2,000
Caroline and her dad invested no more money than that initial $10,000.
Fast forward 51 years. How much money did Caroline have after 10 percent annual return, at age 64?
How’s that for some incredible math? (Skip solving for x.)
Why Learn About Money Now?
Investing is so important — but that’s not all your child should spend time learning. Unfortunately, high schools and colleges just don’t teach basic financial literacy.
It changes lives when they learn this stuff early:
- Your kids show up equipped to handle debt. The less debt a child has over his lifetime, the more he’ll be able to do the things he wants to do, such as buy a home, purchase the things he wants (not on credit), retire and more.
- It’s fun. When you see money compound, your eyes fall out of your head. It’s more fun than living paycheck to paycheck, that’s for sure.
- It’s habitual. Get it together early on and those good money habits will follow your child the rest of his life. Encourage him to put 10 percent of his income into a retirement account and increase that account a little bit at a time. Your child will be in good shape if she keeps it up till retirement!
- It makes him a lifelong money learner. Books about money these days are so dang good. And so inspiring! Check out Why Didn’t They Teach Me This in School?. He might start stuffing it into his trig book and devouring it during class.
Money Topics Your Child Won’t Learn in School
Here’s what your child needs to learn about money management from you, through books and other methods.
Budgeting and Other Fun Stuff
Budgeting 101 is typically not an essential high school class, so check out the basic budgeting steps your child should know. Why not let him in on all your expenses and bills so he sees what you do?
- Add up expenses like rent, utilities, internet, groceries, clothes, household supplies — you know, those fun adult things you get to tackle each month.
- Add up income. How much money do you make from all income sources?
- Subtract expenses from income.
- Understand the difference between “needs” and “wants.” Start applying this now. “Needs” should only include necessary items, like rent, utilities, groceries and more. “Wants” include coffee runs, entertainment and expensive jeans. A really crucial lesson for kids to understand!
- Sign up for automatic bill pay. Incurring extra fees or interest when you fail to pay your bills on time is a real bummer — and it can ding your credit. Show your child how you pay for everything on time.
Make it fun! Your child can tap into lots of budgeting apps, like YNAB and Mint.
Encourage your child to learn about college costs, including a few keywords:
- Tuition: The cost of taking classes at a college
- Room: On-campus housing
- Board: Meals on campus
- Activity fee: Fee to go to events on campus
- Total cost: The sticker price — most students won’t pay this amount!
Let Quatromoney help you (and your child) understand college costs. Quatromoney helps you assess how savings and cash can help your child reduce the need for loans. The company helps your child plan for four years, not just the first year of college.
It’s really important to understand student loans — heck, all loans! — because your child might need them to pay for college.
Student loans seem super complicated, right? They are. For now, let’s reduce student loans into just a few quick facts:
- You pay interest when you borrow. Interest is the amount your child pays (a percentage of a loan) to borrow money. In other words, when your child borrows money for student loans, it costs more money to pay them back. The longer your child takes to pay them back, the more he owes. (Does your child understand this stuff?)
- Take federal loans first and private loans as a last resort. (Let’s go over this more in a second.)
- Get to know the college’s financial aid office. Financial aid officers can help your child navigate everything. Get to know the financial aid personnel at your child’s college. You’ll be happier for it.
Now, onto the basics of federal and private student loans.
Federal Student Loans
The U.S. Department of Education offers Direct Unsubsidized and Subsidized loans and Direct PLUS loans, including Grad PLUS loans for graduate and professional students and Parent PLUS loans for parents of undergraduate students.
What to know: Federal student loans trump private student loans for several reasons:
- No credit checks are involved (although Direct PLUS loans do require a credit check).
- Your child might qualify for an income-based repayment plan once he graduates, which means it depends on how much money your child makes once he graduates from college.
- They’re most often forgiven, which means your child may not have to repay. This depends on which career your child chooses after graduation.
- Federal student loan interest rates are lower compared to private loans.
Private Student Loans
Private student loans fill in the need gap after your child exhausts all scholarship, grant, savings and federal student loan options.
What to know: Private loans often require a co-signer. This person is commonly you or another relative. A co-signer needs a good credit score and needs to show proof of income.
Finally, remember that co-signers are just as responsible for paying back loans. Have a conversation with your child about risk and how your child plans to repay private loans before your child agrees to co-sign.
Starting a Retirement Fund — Now! Yes, Now!
Let’s go back to that fun math problem we did at the very beginning of this article. It took Caroline 51 years to earn a million dollars. Sixty-five years old might feel like it’s a lifetime away.
I’ll repeat what Grandma told your child a million times: “You’ll be my age before you know it, Sonny!”
She’s right — you know that now! (How do the years slip by?)
Do you wish you’d saved $2,000 for five years starting at age 14? I’m sure you do. Hopefully that example is enough of a motivation. Hopefully it propels your kid to scrape up the money from every birthday he’s ever had and invest it.
What to know: If your child’s earned income, she can contribute to a Roth IRA. This could include money earned from a W-2 job or even from self-employment gigs like dog-sitting.
Help Your Child with Financial Literacy
It’s easy for a high schooler to think, “I’ve got plenty of time to figure this stuff out!”
It’s easy to say, “Retirement’s like, 100 years away.”
It’s not! Help your child with this knowledge and let her peer over your shoulder when you’re doing things like paying bills online. Involve your child — they’re great lessons for the future.
I’m in awe of the things my parents say to my kids: “Sure, you can do/have/play with/buy that! And here’s an ice cream cone. And $50. Oh, and a kitten.”
I find myself wondering, “Where was that generosity when I was a kid?”
Then I remember: Oh, yeah, at my grandparents’ house.
Your parents (your kids’ grandparents) may want to help you save for college.
Bravo for them! The only thing is, they may have very specific ideas on how they want to do it — which might not be the most advantageous to your child or the best option, tax-wise.
Let’s go through a few ways grandparents can help!
How Grandparents Can Help Save for College
Your parents may be in a perfect position to help for college — they may have plenty of money saved up and have plenty of ideas! But first… tamp down the excitement! College funds for grandchildren (and alternative options!) can go lots of directions.
1: Start a conversation.
The first step: Always start with a family conversation.
I remember working with this family in admission, the Larsons, who wanted their son to pitch in for some college costs. However, the grandparents wanted to pay the whole bill! (Tempers ran high, especially when the grandparents went behind the Larsons’ back and paid for a whole year of college up front.)
Your parents can tap into a number of strategies. Throughout these conversations, consider how college savings might impact the whole family:
- Maybe you want your child to shoulder some of the cost so he takes college more seriously.
- You want to cover the majority of the costs with your own money. (“My kid, my responsibility.”)
- You want to make sure your parents keep their own needs at the helm. Maybe they may live on a fixed income in retirement and shouldn’t pay for college.
- Certain savings vehicles might affect the financial aid your child receives.
2: Discuss specific vehicles.
Your parents may have it in their head exactly how they want to help your child pay for college. But is it the best option for your family? Here are some great topics to launch your conversations.
Talk About 529 Plans
What’s a 529 plan? Many people herald them as the grandpappy of all college savings plans. Here’s why: Your parents won’t pay taxes on earnings and withdrawals as long as your child uses them for qualified education expenses. (Your parents can also save $10,000 of tuition expenses for elementary, middle, or high school education and to repay qualified student loans and expenses for apprenticeship programs.)
Your child can use 529 savings at accredited institutions for:
- Other educational expenses
Appeal factor: 529 plans must be used for educational purposes and nothing else. For estate tax purposes: The money is no longer considered part of the parents’ or grandparents’ estate.
Your parents might wonder whether to use these options if your child is in high school. They sure can! For example, they can put in five years of annual gifts — up to $15,000 (up to $75,000 per person, per beneficiary) at once without messing with gift tax or scraping away at the lifetime gift tax exclusion.
Consider UGMAs or UTMAs
Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts, also called custodial accounts, let the grandchild take control of assets in the account as soon as they reach a specified age. What age? That depends on your state laws.
The custodian (who can be anyone — it doesn’t have to be your parents) controls the account until your child reaches (usually) 18 or 21. After that, he can spend the money on whatever he wants, even a brand-new Corvette. You may want to have a conversation with your parents about skipping this option if your kid’s liable to say, “I’m rich, I’m rich! Never mind going to college, let’s all go to the south of France!” And then he rents a house on the beach for his friend for a month and the money’s gone.
Another issue: You can’t transfer UGMAs or UTMAs to another beneficiary. For example, let’s say it becomes super apparent that your child will goof off with the money. Your parents can’t switch and give money to a more studious sibling.
Also — talk to your parents about the possibility that your child will get less financial aid if your parents opt for a UGMA or UTMA because they count as student assets and factor in at 20 percent, more than the 2.6 percent to 5.6 percent for parent assets. (Yikes!)
Warn them that they won’t see as many tax benefits. The interest, dividends and earnings is the child’s income and taxed at the child’s tax rate once the child reaches age 18. The first $1,100 is untaxed if the child is under 18 and the next $1,100 is taxed at the child’s rate. Anything over $2,100 is taxed at the grandparent’s rate. Visit IRS.gov for more information.
Appeal factor: You can contribute virtually any type of asset toward both UGMAs and UTMAs. You can even contribute real estate to an UTMA. Your path is much less limited and your parents may like the larger number of investment options in a custodial account compared to a 529 plan.
Talk about Coverdell ESAs
A Coverdell education savings account (Coverdell ESA) is a trust or custodial account for paying qualified education expenses. You can pay qualified higher education expenses (and elementary and secondary education expenses) with a Coverdell ESA. Note: The designated beneficiary must be under the age of 18 or be a special needs beneficiary.
Your parents can contribute to a Coverdell ESA with cash but they’re not deductible. The downside is that the total contribution to all accounts on behalf of a beneficiary in any year can’t exceed $2,000 with a modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) up to $190,000. The amount reduces incrementally for MAGI between $190,000 and $220,000. If your parents’ incomes rise above $220,000, they’re ineligible to contribute to a Coverdell ESA.
Whew, that was kind of boring. Sorry! Let’s up the excitement in the appeal factor section.
Appeal factor: Tax-free withdrawals! More investment flexibility than 529s! No withdrawal cap like the 529’s $10,000 tax-free withdrawal cap for qualified expenses to an elementary or secondary public, private or religious school! Also, your parents can transfer money from one grandchild to another.
3: What if they prefer to pay the bill directly? Talk through it.
“We’re not interested in all that,” your parents may say, with a wave of a hand. “Taxes, shmaxes.”
You may reply (with a hint of exasperation in your voice), “But a savings vehicle makes the most sense, tax-wise!”
Paying directly is not considered a gift. Your parents could still use their annual gift exclusion to give up to $15,000 to one grandchild. However, direct tuition payments do affect financial aid. The other downside is that money doesn’t grow tax-free in an account — your child doesn’t have interest working in his favor.
4: Discuss a tuition payment plan.
The tuition payment plan is one of the secrets of breaking up college payments into tinier chunks. It simply means you pay for an item in fixed amounts at specified intervals — you make small payments over time. A tuition installment plan means you can reduce a remaining balance by splitting it up into a specified number of months. You’ll pay that amount over a typical nine- to 12-month period.
Most colleges’ installment plans cover only the direct costs billed by and paid to the college, which includes:
- Room and board (only applicable if your child lives on campus)
- Books, supplies, equipment and transportation to and from school are not covered.
A tuition payment plan does not include things like transportation, school supplies and other outside expenses.
Talk about a specific monthly amount they want to help with — and make sure you agree.
5: Discuss money they’ve already ferreted away.
Do your parents have money ripe for plucking in traditional and/or Roth IRA accounts? Why not use it to pay for their grandchild’s college education — particularly if they’ll have plenty of money left in it for themselves?
As long as your parents are 59½ and older, they can withdraw money from a traditional IRA to pay for college without paying a 10 percent penalty on distributions. Traditional IRA owners do pay federal income tax on the amount withdrawn.
If your parents are under 59½, it’s better to take money from a Roth IRA. Your parents won’t suffer a 10 percent penalty on distributions used for qualified education expenses as long as the account as long as they’ve had the account for five years.
A Sweet Gesture
Even when you disagree on the vehicle to pay for it (or, like the Larsons’ parents, paid for the whole thing without permission) you’ve got to recognize the effort your parents are putting in.
The best thing you can do is talk as a family to discover which option fits your child best.
It’s essay season!
Itching to get your hands on your student’s application essay or personal statement essay? Just once?
Don’t do it.
Your child’s essay may be deeply personal. Unless your child offers you a share in the review, remain as hands-off during this process as possible.
What you can do: Go over the “rules” beforehand. You don’t want to be the parent who says, “Oh, by the way, don’t repeat any other part of the application, like your awards, grades or test scores. You’ve already reported those” — after your child wades through the essay.)
You’ll hear, “Mooo-om! That’s the whole third paragraph!”
Instead, intervene at the beginning if you want to help with the college essay — read this first!
1. What’s unique?
You know your child better than anyone else. You know
what makes him tick (oooh, get rid of clichés!)
He shouldn’t write about what he thinks will impress a scholarship committee or admission committee.
In other words, your child shouldn’t write about world hunger if it’s not his thing. Let’s say his thing is caring for animals. Does he get up at dawn every day to birth calves with the veterinarian next door?
He should write about cow placentas if his life is all about cow placentas! Admission committees want to hear about unique interests.
Can your child think of something unique — besides football, soccer or school subjects? (Overused topics.)
Maybe your daughter’s an Origami wizard. Maybe your son overcame OCD.
Get your child thinking about his own passions — and how to craft these ideas in his own voice.
2. Writing can’t suck.
Obviously. It’s got to be interesting. Check out this intro:
Let’s acquaint. Born in New York City, I grew up filthy on the streets. Snowflakes landed on my dà pán jī and my sleeping bag in synchronicity. Mrs. Ming at Hou Yi fed me six times a day and I learned to swear in Chinese.
Just kidding. I grew up in Greenwich — privileged, yes, but check this out. I’m typing this essay with my toes. That’s right — no arms!
Wow, doesn’t that get your attention?
Compare this to the first two sentences of my own autobiography (I wrote it in fourth grade):
I was born on a cold, windy day in November. I was a greenish color and I cried when I was born.
High schoolers sometimes can’t kick the passive voice because it’s easier.
Plus, bad English teachers + maxing out word count = raging passive voice.
How do you make sure your kid writes unlike he speaks? We all speak passively, and not everyone writes well. Remember those old summer vacation essays?
“We were on our summer vacation and Cape Cod was the only place I wanted to be.”
Get rid of clichés in your own speech and remind your high schooler. By the way, your child should strike anything redundant (extra words — yuck!) and ambiguous (give concrete details!).
3. Get someone else on board ahead of time.
Ask to critique his work and your kid looks at you, buggy-eyed, like you suggested staring at elephant poop. “Mom, you’re an insurance agent, not an English professor. Please sit this one out.”
Get a third party involved wayyyy in advance, preferably someone who knows really good writing. Ask your copywriter friend, your child’s English teacher — someone other than you or your partner.
(Even if you know your writing skills sparkle!)
4. Encourage your essayist to take it slow.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. (No clichés, remember?)
The Common App requires a 650-word essay, so encourage your child to make them count — slowly. Let’s say your child must meet a November 1 deadline for School X.
Ask him to start the essay now. Why not write 100 words over the course of six weeks? (Beats writing it all two days beforehand.) Pencil it out, like this:
- Write 100 words: Week of September 13
- Another 100 words: Week of September 20
- Crank out another 100 words: Week of September 27
- Get it! Another 100 words: Week of October 4 (Already up to 400!)
…and so on. There’s nothing worse than last-minute panic. You know that from personal experience, right?
Help your child map out the entire next six weeks — and make sure he or she ends up with more than 250 words. It’s tough to impress an admission committee in only 250 words.
Your child may fill out other applications instead of the Common App. Schools often offer a “suggested limit” — don’t go over that. Try to use the Common App’s 650-word limit if no suggested limit exists.
5. Add in buffer time.
Add in time for creative stewing. For Netflix spirals. For reading a book chapter, typing a sentence, reading another chapter and writing another sentence.
It’s impossible for most people to sit down and write in one sitting. (Right now, I’m watching T.V., reading and working on three other freelance articles at a time.) I can’t commit to one thing at a time — your kid can’t, either. The point is, within those 100-word weeks, add in lots of buffer time.
Don’t forget to have your high schooler put the essay down quite a few times — think cold eyes and lots of revisions!
7. Answer the prompt!
It’s easy for admission officers to throw out essays that don’t specifically answer the prompts provided. Maybe the prompt asks about your child’s achievements and he answers with a lengthy blow-by-blow of his latest breakup.
Not relevant. Furthermore, make sure he relates it to his future performance in college.
Read the prompt, then set it aside for a day or two. You don’t want your child to misread the prompt!
8. Resist the urge to take over.
You can’t write the essay for your child. Not even a small sentence here and there. If you do, you might give yourself away! Many old-timers slip in two spaces after every period or exclamation mark. Nobody does that anymore. (And if you do it, stop.)
Designate yourself “Cheerleader Mom” and reach out to your already-appointed proofreader instead. Your copywriter friend offers a subjectivity that you don’t have. The copywriter friend you know doesn’t have the same “My kid’s a genius!” bent or ample criticisms. (And if he does criticize, he’ll use a diplomatic approach — “How ‘bout we say this instead?”)
Help, but Stay Hands Off
Just like nobody warned you how hard it would be to watch your child fall down as a one-year-old, nobody warned you how tough it would be to keep your mitts off that admission essay.
Trust that outside advisor to walk your child through it — and if you need to, hire help!
One last tip: Encourage your child to read great essays. Your child can glean a lot from samples, as long as he doesn’t copy them verbatim.
Time to put a zip in your step, folks! Are you ready to transform into a savvy prospective parent?
What do savvy prospective parents do?
They ask excellent questions.
One family asked me such difficult questions in the admission office that I gave them an “A+” for “hardest questions of the year” and said, “You should go talk to my boss.”
They asked me questions like:
- “What’s the college pay for water and electricity and how does that work into my son’s tuition?”
- “How much money do your college’s LEED buildings save per year?”
I’m sorry to say, I didn’t know the answer to their questions.
The point is, it’s important to ask relevant questions. We’re busy. Schedules only allow us to squeeze in a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at lunchtime. That’s about it.
Relevant questions get to the innards of what you need to know. Asking the right person the right questions is paramount.
Was I the right person to ask about water, electricity and LEED buildings?
No — and does it even matter in the grand scheme of things? They should’ve asked the director of facilities, “How much waste does this school produce and how does that cost me money?”
“How much will it cost me?” — the real question.
What are the questions you should be asking? Let’s conquer those questions to get you started.
Who’s my child’s admission counselor?
Let’s start out with a simple question. This question means everything, though.
You can even figure this out using the college’s website — you just need to select your state and sometimes even your child’s high school. Wham! It’s that easy to find your child’s go-to person.
Why is it important to get to know your child’s admission counselor?
Here’s an easy answer. One day, circa 2012, a student panel was underway during one of our visit days. Here’s how it went:
Parent in audience: “Why did you come to this college?”
Student panelist on stage: “My admission counselor was awesome! She was one of the main reasons I decided to come here.”
A million reasons, folks! It’s a great question because:
- Your child’s admission counselor helps your family navigate financial aid, scholarships and more. The admission counselor may even be able to point you toward other scholarship opportunities. They may be scholarships in your community or online scholarships he/she knows your child could qualify for.
- The admission counselor can help you and your child make connections. Whether you need to talk to a biology professor, a financial aid officer or someone else at the school your child’s interested in, the admission counselor is the conduit to making that happen. Take advantage of it!
- Admission counselors know a lot about the college they work for. They know about the fun stuff, the clubs and organizations launching, the most popular majors and more. Admission counselors are often alumni, so they really have special knowledge about an institution. Ask an admission counselor what the best residence hall is and you’ll get an earful in milliseconds.
- Admission counselors know what types of students thrive at their institution. Let’s face it. Not every college is a great fit for every student. Why not ask what the ideal student at College/University XYZ looks like? It’ll be interesting to hear the admission counselor’s response.
- Admission counselors are statistics collectors. Admission counselors’ brains cannot go on autopilot. They should be able to know the percentage of students who graduate, how many go on to graduate school, how many get internships and more. (Just don’t ask them really quirky questions like that family did with me!)
- Admission counselors know what it takes to get admitted. Admission counselors are available to walk your child through the admission process. They should be able to tell you whether your child has a shot at getting admitted with his or her current credentials. An admission counselor may recommend submitting an additional letter of recommendation or other supporting documentation. They’re experts at strengthening an application. Ask before you send it in.
- Admission counselors can guide you through the process. You’re in the know at all times when you’ve got an admission counselor to guide you.
What should I know about the admission process right now?
Question two. I know it relates to question one, but it’s an important breakout question. Colleges’ admission processes have changed.
Maybe COVID-19 pushed ACTs or SATs to the annals of history. Or not.
Maybe admission offices shoved interviews off the cliff. But maybe not.
You might just be learning the admission process at one school. However, if your child became aware of admission requirements for a particular school last year, things may be different. Double-check!
A few good questions:
- Do I need to supply my ACT or SAT score? If not, what will that do to my child’s admission chances? (Test optional should really mean test optional!) Check FairTest’s ACT/SAT test optional college and universities. FairTest is a national advocacy organization that seeks to “end the misuses and flaws of testing practices.” Most accredited 4-year higher education institutions adopted test-optional policies for fall of 2021 admission.
- If a college or university isn’t on FairTest’s list: Why does your college or university require ACT or SAT scores? Listen carefully to the reasons and determine whether it’s still important for your child to apply to that college.
- What other metrics will you use for admission purposes instead of standardized test scores? Every college’s response will be different. Find out.
What are your COVID-19 policies right now?
Should you find out about a school’s COVID-19 processes, even if your child’s a sophomore?
True, it’s tough to say what that will look like in a few years. However, learning more about a college’s process right now can help you and your student:
- Understand a college’s response to COVID-19. It’s important to evaluate a college on all fronts, and it’s critical to agree with the college’s response to the crisis.
- Figure out what policies may look like down the road. It’s really possible that things could stay the same for next year and beyond. Truth be told, we don’t know how long this virus will hang around!
- Learn the online learning protocol and whether it makes sense for your student. Maybe your student says he’s 86ing online learning and you like another college’s COVID-19 policy better. Maybe your child wants to forgo a residential experience altogether. You can find really cheap ways to get an online degree!
- Assess how a college can help on the technology front. You and your child may not have the technology needed to make Zoom classes happen. How will the college help?
- Determine how a college makes classes interactive or uses creativity within the constraints of online learning. Yeah, how does a chemistry professor do labs online? I’m sure you’re really curious. (I am, too.)
Can my child connect with a professor or other necessary individual?
… or through Zoom if in-person meetings aren’t possible?
One of the best ways to get to know faculty members at institutions is to… meet them!
- Your child will know instantly whether he wants to learn from that person. (First impressions!) You should meet a particular physics professor at my alma mater. He’s got personality plus and he’s exactly what you’d imagine when you think of the stereotypical physics professor. The students rave about him. He’d greet everyone on the first day by asking them their first names and one fact about them — and remembered everything. Great professor!
- Even if your child changes his mind on major — most do! — you’ll still get a feel for how the faculty members work with students. I think it’s a bad idea to choose a college based solely on major, but I do think all students should get to know at least one professor during the college search, if possible. It gives your child a general idea of whether professors are hands-on professors, whether they’re available for students and what their office hours are like.
- Who else should you meet? You might not be interested in hearing from a professor. What about a dietitian? The tutoring center? A coach?
How can my child talk to a current student?
Your child must talk to a current student! I don’t care if it’s on Zoom, over the phone, in person — however it can happen, make it happen. You can find out a lot from students, who don’t spew the same jargon-filled, marketing vocabulary that a professor does.
You can learn more about:
- The overall experience
- Gossip about professors
- Residence hall living
- Classes and academic rigor
- Internship availability
- Students’ opinions about the college’s COVID-19 response
- Quality of food in the cafeteria (why not?!)
- Athletic experiences if your student is an athlete
- Class and day-to-day structure
- Why the student chose to attend that college (my favorite question!)
Can you think of other topics your student should ask about? Think your student will never agree to talk to another student? How about if the admission office arranges it and the other student has tons common with that student? If you set it up, it might not happen, but if the admission office arranges it? — totally different story.
What’s one thing you can guarantee that my student will experience at this college and why?
I really, really like this question! Know why? It puts a dart right in the middle of a college’s values.
Once, a student said this to me about a competitor school: “I really didn’t enjoy my tour at XYZ College. The tour guide spent all her time talking about the religious opportunities on campus. I found out that over 60 percent of students at the college attend chapel or other religious services and I realized that college wouldn’t be a great fit for me at all.”
Now, in reality, the college actually could have been a great fit for the student because it offered an excellent academic experience. And the tour guide was wrong. Just 15 percent of students participated in religious activities. However, the student didn’t believe she’d fit in. It worked out to our benefit, however. The tour guide at our college did an excellent job of sharing all of the other salient points for the student and she came to our college! (It really is all about perception, isn’t it?)
Find out whether the school will meet your kiddo’s expectations. Ask around! Sometimes people take a students’ point of view as the gospel truth — and, well, my story proves what can happen there.
How much financial aid can I get?
Think you have to wait around to find out how much college will cost? Until you get your child’s financial aid award?
You can find out long before you get that aid award in the mail and can know the cost wayyyy in advance.
You’ll find a net price calculator on every college’s website. The net price calculator holds the secrets: What you’ll pay out-of-pocket or through student loans. The college’s total cost — tuition, room and board and fees, minus any grants and scholarships — tells you what you pay. Is it a full, robust snapshot with every detail?
But you can get close.
By the way, you can also ask for a preliminary financial aid award or a financial aid early estimator.
They give you lots of great information. Bottom line: You’re armed with a lot more information way before you receive a financial aid award.
How to Get A+ Answers
How to get A+ answers? It’s simple.
The only way you’re going to get answers to your questions is to ask them. Push a little. It’s okay! In fact, I firmly believe that’s a parent’s job during the college search process.
Ask tough questions. And when the admission counselor can’t answer — she asks her boss. (Just like I did.)
And then, when the boss can’t answer, he goes to the facilities planning and management personnel who can answer (or whoever it is.)
The point is, you’re the customer. You should get the answers you want and need.