College Mom: College Application Survival Tips

10 tips for surviving the college application process — from FAFSA to SATs to stress management and more — from a mom who has been there

mother and daughter looking at colleges on the computer

My heart was racing when the shiny, new college brochures started coming in the mail. You know the ones. Co-eds on the cover in the sunshine, throwing footballs and studying on perfectly manicured campus lawns. 

Was it exciting? Absolutely. But mostly I was terrified. How were we going to get through all of this? There was so much information to sift through it felt daunting. 

It was even a crazier time for my daughter. She had to deal with the stress of finding time to study for SATs and fill out applications. On top of that, she had high school to contend with, including challenging classes, outside activities, community service hours (for that college application!) and social pressures to boot.

So many questions

Firstly, what kind of college could she be accepted to? (It’s not just about grade point average these days.) Should we go and tour some prospective colleges? When is the best time to do that? Should we be looking only at schools she could realistically get into, or should we also look at “reach” schools?

Would she qualify for scholarship money? How much was it going to cost? (Not to mention, we had our younger daughter going to college the following year!)

Help is out there

Luckily, there is a wealth of help and guidance if you know where to look.

Here are some steps that worked for our family. Looking back, we made some mistakes with our older daughter’s process, but we learned from them and things went much smoother the second time around.

1. Start early

Of course, if you plan on paying for your kids to go to college, early saving is mandatory and there are great plans to choose from that allow you to use the money tax-free, as long as it’s used for school. Ask a financial advisor or check out this CNN article for the basics.

Starting the college discussion early is a good idea as well. Talking about your own positive college experiences can make an impact on your child. When our daughters were in their early teens, we made a trip to Minneapolis to visit some family. We decided to take a side trip and show them my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Just walking the campus got them very excited. I showed them the dorm I lived in, and all of my favorite hangouts. Suddenly Mom was “cool.” (Of course that didn’t last!) But visiting the campus really made an impression on them both, and got them looking forward to their own college experiences after high school.

2. Talk to a financial advisor

As college is approaching, talk to a financial advisor whether you have saved for college or not.

Most advisors these days agree that if you haven’t saved for college and don’t have the means to pay for it, you should not take money out of your retirement account. It is much better to have your child take out student loans and have the debt, since they will have a much greater timeline to pay it off. Besides, you can’t take out loans for retirement. 

If you do have accounts set up already, your financial advisor can help you figure out how much you have, what schools you can afford and which ones your child will need to rely on scholarships or financial aid to attend.

3. Fill out the FAFSA

The FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Financial aid providers use this form to determine what they believe you could afford to contribute to your student’s education. You should fill out the FAFSA whether you plan to request financial aid or not. The reason is your child could still qualify for scholarships based on merit, which definitely helps with the cost of his or her education. 

The FAFSA becomes available January 1 of every calendar year. So if your child is heading to college in 2016, you can access the FAFSA on Jan. 1, 2016.

For more information about the FAFSA and other forms you may need for aid, I recommend this Forbes article which does a great job outlining general college costs and helpful tips.

4. Visit schools junior year if possible

If you can visit some colleges with your child, junior year is a great time to do it. By the time they’re seniors, they’ll be busy with senior year challenges as well as applications, and it makes visits much more stressful, if not impossible for some.

Visit schools they’re most interested in, but if you don’t have the resources to spend on a lot of visits, try to focus on schools they could realistically get into and afford, (or qualify for financial aid or merit scholarships), rather than “reach” schools.

If you’re visiting schools out of state, be sure to see more than one school in that state. Even if it’s a college they’re sure they’re not interested in, you’ll get some perspective by visiting more than one campus. 

5. Talk to friends and family

Probably one of the best ways to start to wade through a lot of questions and information is to talk to people you trust who have recently (and successfully) gotten through it. 

I received a lot of help from one particular friend who went through the process the year prior to me. She even had a notebook full of itineraries she had made and used for several California school tours that turned out to be a great help. Though her organizational skills put mine to shame, her help was invaluable.

6. Talk with your teen 

Though it may seem tough to do, talk honestly with your teen about everything — from how they’re handling the stress of it all, to college financial expectations.

Here’s how my family handled the financial discussion: We told our daughter we could afford to send her to a Washington State college without her incurring any debt. Sounds great, right?

It turns out she was also accepted to an out-of-state school with a scholarship. The problem was, even with the merit scholarship it was still quite a bit more expensive, especially when you throw in the price of moving and out-of-state and flights back and forth.

What we told her was that we’d be willing to send her there, under a few conditions. One, we could only pay for two round trips a year. Two, there would be no “extras” like a doing a semester abroad. Also, she would have to work (at least part time) while she was at school.

By putting the power in her hands and setting up our own financial boundaries, she was able to make the choice from a practical instead of an emotional place.

7. Start working on your college list

Most college counselors will tell you it’s a good idea to have a range of schools to apply to. Anywhere from four to eight is the number most recommend.

For our kids, we started with the state schools because these were the most affordable and as it turns out, Washington State has some awesome schools to choose from.

I began by researching the colleges on the web, as well as asking friends and family about particular schools their children attended.

These days, you can find just about any information you need on college websites. From GPA requirements to other tests or qualifications needed in order to apply. You can even look at what other kids who attend a particular college are saying about it.

8. Ask help from guidance counselors or coaches

If you’re having a hard time figuring out what schools your child might best suited for, talk to their guidance counselor at school.

They can usually help you and your child come up with an initial list. What worked best for us was having two match schools (likely they would get in), one safety school (your child is generally academically above the average student there) and two reach schools.

Also keep in mind what kind of child you have. Will they thrive on a larger campus or be overwhelmed? Maybe a smaller environment would be better for them.

If you are having a hard time talking to your child about all of this, it could help to hire a college coach. No matter how much research I did, it seemed every time I sat down with my oldest daughter to discuss it, it ended with her in tears. It was just really tough to take the emotion out of the discussion.

The coach I hired was someone she respected and quickly was able to clarify things for her in a way I couldn’t. She was pricey but since we already had done a lot of background ourselves, we only needed one session. Definitely money well spent. 

9. Invest in SAT or ACT prep classes if possible

We sent both our girls to SAT prep classes the summer of their sophomore years. We found them to be really helpful. I know it took a lot of the stress out of taking the test, and having them prepare for it early worked well for us.

If you can’t afford that, there are free SAT prep tests online that kids can practice on through the College Board website

There is a fee for taking the SAT tests, but your child may qualify for a waiver to take it for free. You can look into that here.

10. Relax, there’s a college for everyone

If there’s anything I learned from going through this process two years in a row, it was to try and not stress too much about it. There is a great college out there for your child.

Not everything is based on test scores and GPA’s. Many great schools are looking for kids who have demonstrated leadership skills, have had interesting extra-curricular activities, diverse backgrounds and experiences, lots of community service, or could generally add something interesting to their campus.

Encourage your child to use the essay to convey as much about who they are as possible. Even talking about struggles they’ve overcome in their life reveals a lot about their character and how they handle tough situations.

When rejection letters come (and they will!) support your child by reminding them they will get accepted to a college that’s right for them.

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