It seems like yesterday when I was sitting down with my son to work through college applications.  Today, he’s on campus as a sophomore and it’s time to begin the process with son number two!  My wife and I are a little wiser and a bit less stressed about what to expect this time around.  Here’s some suggestions for other moms and dads who are navigating along a similar path.

First, start early.  Your student doesn’t need to know where they are applying before starting the application.  Most students will utilize the common app which allows you to submit various applications to multiple institutions.  Some colleges, like Georgetown University require applicants to apply directly via their website, though most accept the common app.

There’s a fair bit of background information that needs to be input by your student so starting early helps.  It’s a good idea for your son or daughter to provide a personal email address they check so communications may be received via this portal.  To avoid unnecessary friction in the family, encourage your student to input this information over the course of several weeks.  They may always revisit and double check their responses before finalizing the process.

Second, assess your student’s approach to essay writing.  Ideally this requirement may be addressed over the summer, leaving more time in the fall for applications and college visits.  No worries if your daughter or son is getting around to this now.  The common app provides a list of topics and themes to be written about as part of the essay requirement.  You may choose to have your student work with an outside professional for brainstorming and editing, or you may be brave enough to do this yourself.

Because all teenagers listen to their parents and openly welcome advice and feedback this should be straight forward and easy, right? 😊  Our family chose option one, hire a professional.  We discovered this reduced family stress and allowed our boys to better express ideas in their own words.  Distancing ourselves from this process while still staying engaged with them on their topic was valuable.  There are no right or wrong approaches here, but sanity does matter in managing expectations and timelines.

Collecting recommendations from a guidance counselor or teacher is another necessary step.  As you can imagine, requesting this early makes a difference.  Which teacher or advisor will your student be requesting a letter of recommendation from?  Nudge your kids to ask before or after class or via email.  Your student may input the teacher’s name and email address into the common app so that a request will automatically be generated to them.  It’s suggested for students not to view what’s in their recommendation letter by checking the appropriate box on the app.

Congratulations, your student is now ready to add colleges to their common app portal!  It’s possible to add colleges to your profile before accomplishing the above steps.  I discovered it was easier to get my boys to buy into a process we could navigate together, one step at a time.  Adding colleges after taking smaller steps also provided time for each of them to consider which schools to apply to.  Every university has their own requirements which may include additional questions or supplemental essays to submit.

Another benefit to using the common app was understanding application deadlines.  Every college added to your student’s portal will provide early action, early decision, and regular decision cutoff dates.  Working backwards we were able to see what needs to get done when to avoid reacting and any last-minute scrabbles.

There’s a fair amount of time your daughters and sons will invest into this process without knowing the outcome.  It’s fair to say you’ll invest a ton of time (and money too) in assisting your young adult as they sort through their choices as acceptance emails arrive.  It’s an odd process to apply to colleges, wait for acceptance, only then to determine what the costs may be.  Financial aid letters which detail scholarship availability and other loans tend to be mailed in the spring.  You and your student will have time to determine total costs.

Major changes are taking place to the FAFSA form which will be available later this year for parents to complete.  You can get ahead here too by creating a FAFSA ID for both you and your student before the application opens.  It’s a common misconception to think your family earns too much and skip completing this form.  Submitting a FAFSA allows your student to be eligible to receive merit-based scholarships.  Merit based scholarships are a reduction off the sticker price of attending college.  Price matters so understating any merit-based aid beyond freshman year including minimum GPA requirements is a good idea.

I encourage all parents to talk with their kids about how they will pay for college before submitting applications.  This shouldn’t influence where your student applies, apply wherever, but have a conversation about how your family will address the costs before the acceptance emails arrive.

Further reading may be found here:

Next Step: College


The Price you Pay for College, An Entirely New Road Map for the Biggest Financial Decision your Family Will Ever Make, by Ron Lieber.

Investment Choices for College

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