Monday, July 10, 2017

College Search Shortcuts!

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I know a thing or two about seniors in high school. I've been teaching them for years. Daughter #2 is about to be a senior, which means we are thick into the college search. For many families this means utter exhaustion and constant nagging—SATs and GPAs and college visits, etc. It also means facing reality. Here are a few suggestions for helping you and your teenager navigate the road ahead.

1. Don't waste your time applying to schools he/she won't get into. Colleges make $$$ off all those application fees, and they can be seductive with mailers and emails, etc. They will stroke your ego, at least in some cases. Know the facts before visiting and/or applying. If you didn't go to college yourself, that's okay. Schools have websites and most of them are easily explored, so don't be intimidated. Dream schools are great. All kids (and parents) have big dreams. Just know the difference between a reachable dream and a truly farfetched one.

2. While high school guidance counselors are GREAT, and they do truly heroic work in most cases, they are overwhelmed. They can point you in the right direction, but you and your teen must do lots of leg work. If you can afford it, invest in a meeting with a consultant. I'm not one for getting all high-brow and fancy with this stuff, but a good private consultant can be worth her weight in gold. Just be sure to check the credentials and get some trustworthy referrals. My daughter and I met with a counselor at the beginning of her junior year, and this expert did a terrific job of talking to my daughter about college realities. Remember, your teen isn't as likely to listen to you, even if you have multiple degrees and know the ropes. Keep in mind that if you went to college 25 years ago, a LOT has changed. Go into the process with an I-want-to-learn mindset.

3. Don't torture yourself with too many visits. Visits can be overwhelming and stressful. Avoid scheduling too many too close together. Spread the visits out. Better yet, spend lots of time doing online visits to get a feel for the college before you actually venture there. Encourage your child to tag along with friends on college visits, and offer to take other kids with your family. It makes for a fun outing, and saves time/money in the long run. Remember, not all families can afford these visits. If you have the means, offer this opportunity to a student in need.

4. Set boundaries. My husband and I know what we have saved and what we can realistically save in the coming year. So often I witness the heartbreak of a student getting into a fabulous college only to be told later it was never a realistic option financially. There is a great deal of talk about ALL THOSE SCHOLARSHIPS out there, you know, just waiting for your teen. The truth is there are scholarships available, but many students won't qualify for them. Speak openly and honestly about financial limitations, so you're not facing major family blowouts come spring.

5. Use a ranking system. For my daughter we set the range 1-5, one being "I'll go there if no other college will have me." Immediately following a college tour, ask your teen to rank the school and record that ranking. Discuss at length why the college ranked high or low. If an expensive school and a reasonably priced school rank exactly the same for basically the same reasons, it's a no-brainer, right?

Start with visits closer to home. As a result of a few visits, we now know what our daughter wants in a college. With this in mind, we've already eliminated several faraway schools because they are too big and don't have the population/vibe she's looking for. She is pictured with two schools that scored a four on our scale. She's yet to find that oh-so-elusive five, however.

6. Don't bank on those future high-paying, amazing jobs your teen will surely get upon graduation. It's bleak out there, even for the best and brightest. I have a 27 year old and have recently witnessed this. It will likely be a while before your teen can afford a hefty student loan payment. Consider, too, the possibility of graduate school. Unless your pockets are lined with gold, be conservative. Keep in mind that someday you might want your offspring to buy a house and start a family. Exorbitant student debt can have a lifelong effect, truly.

7. Pick a safety school, and make sure it's truly a safety school. One year I had a student who applied to 10+ top-tier schools, and she didn't get into ANY OF THEM. She was devastated, obviously. She had the SATs and GPA to warrant applying to these schools, too. Still, she didn't get in. Thank goodness she had one safety school. She was accepted and had a full ride to boot. Insist that your teen pick a safety school he/she would actually want to attend.

8. Don't be afraid to put your foot down. Recently, I taught a wonderful student who got into several prestigious schools. She is truly a remarkable young woman, and we were all drooling over the exciting options she'd been offered. However, her mother was the voice of reason. Instead of taking out loans, she insisted her daughter accept a full ride to a great (but less prestigious) school. She said, "You'll thank me later." Have to say, I agree with her mom on this one, and I told her daughter so. Reality bites, but it's still reality. Teens are never too young to learn fiscal responsibility. Our oldest daughter went to a moderately priced but very respectable university for undergrad and still ended up in a top-notch graduate program later on.

9. Keep your bragging to a minimum. Better yet, don't brag at all. I've seen exceptional students go to amazing colleges and flounder for all sorts of reasons. I've seen average students blossom in community college or a state school. In spite of that awful term "Race to the Top," education is not a competition. If other parents are boasting about flying all over the country to tour smarty-pants colleges or droning on about the thousands they're spending on SAT prep, plug your ears and run. Unfollow them on Facebook. These are the same folks who bragged about potty training. Refuse to participate. Seriously. Kids have enough stress as seniors in high school without parents screeching on the sidelines.

10. Ask for teacher recommendations early in the senior year. Keep in mind we are not required to write these letters. We write them because we love our students and want to help them excel. Thank you notes are sincerely appreciated. Also, be sure the teacher actually likes your teen and has a good working relationship with him/her. Don't ask the disorganized teacher who rarely has a lesson plan to write a rec letter. Trust me on this one. OH, and students, not parents, do the asking. It's also recommended students ask the teacher in person, not via email.

11. It's okay to dream. This is an exciting time for sure. A few years ago, I taught a young man I absolutely adored. He was kind and considerate and funny and just an all-around good guy. He wasn't the strongest student academically, but he's going to do well in life because he builds good relationships with people. His guidance counselor poo-pooed his college choices based on his grades, but he went ahead and applied to some of those schools anyway. He was willing to take the risk, and he was also realistic about his chances of getting in. In his case, the gamble paid off, and he is currently attending his top choice. There are also colleges that don't give a hoot about your teen's standardized test scores. You can find this information on school websites.

12. Remind your teen again and again that this isn't a life or death decision. It can feel this way, especially when you're seventeen (or the parent of someone who is 17). No matter a teenager's bravado, this is a tough time. They are aware of what's at stake. They see the competition all around them. Be reassuring that whatever happens, your son/daughter will be okay. You'll still be proud of them. More times than I can count I've watched students suffer rejection, select an alternate college, and end up a completely happy camper in the end. Likewise, I've seen students exuberant about a school only to hear they transferred after the first semester. Kids make mistakes. Parents make mistakes. Transferring is not the end of the world. Going to your third or fourth choice might turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

13. Finally (I implore you on this one), help your son or daughter savor these fleeting moments of senior year. Yes, encourage them to keep up their grades. There are studies that say students who perform well in their senior year of high school are more likely to perform well in their freshman year of college. Let's face it, it's fun to dream about the future—all that college independence and a dorm room! I mean, who doesn't want to buy oodles of plastic bins at Target? But, you only get ONE senior year.  In the words of Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast. You don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."

Linking up with Kim at Savvy Southern Style!

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