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.

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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.

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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.

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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!  

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