Steps to Take to Prepare Early
By Michelle Bourg
Attending college has long been a cornerstone of the American dream, and the majority of students hope to do so. But the path to getting there is a winding and long one: educators and college admissions officers recommend that planning for college begin when a child reaches sixth grade. For modern families, the three keys to navigating the path to college successfully are being proactive, organization and communication.
Off to a Good Start: Middle and Junior High School
In Georgia, the concept of proactivity has been mandated with the BRIDGE (Building Resourceful Individuals to Develop Georgia’s Economy) Act, which helps students select a focused study plan by providing career counseling and regularly scheduled advisement beginning in sixth grade. (For more information, visit the Georgia Department of Education website at gadoe.org).
Students begin by taking the Career Cluster Inventory and creating a YouScience portfolio to track their BRIDGE activities. During the spring of their eighth-grade year, students must select a career area and draft a corresponding course of study called an IGP (Individual Graduation Plan) in consultation with parents, counselors and teachers.
Parents should communicate with their children about school performance and its impact on a future career by discussing possible career interests and helping them to develop good study habits, identifying academic areas that need improvement. The PSAT 8/9 offers a snapshot of a child’s academic strengths and weaknesses so families can create a plan of action.
Staying the Course: Ninth And Tenth Grades
As high school begins, parents and students should establish a good relationship with the guidance counselor and work with him or her to select prerequisite courses for advanced-level work. If any subjects are giving difficulty, additional help should be sought in order to be up to speed going forward. It’s critical to maintain grades and test performance, as colleges look at a student’s entire high school career.
Sophomore year is when the first standardized placement tests are taken; 10thgraders may take the PSAT 10 or the ACT prerequisite PLAN test. Qualified students should look into the MOWR (Move On When Ready) program, which enables qualified Georgia high school students to take college courses and receive both high school and college credit.
Co-curricular participation is one of the most memorable parts of the high school experience and a key factor in college admissions. Students should try some out now and find one or two they will enjoy long-term. This is also a good time to begin satisfying the community service graduation requirement. Parents should monitor their child’s schedule to ensure that academics and co-curriculars remain in balance. While the nitty-gritty of financial planning is still in the future, during freshman year families should start to discuss financial aid, scholarships and the student’s responsibilities, if any. A good place to start is by visiting the website of the Georgia Student Finance Commission (gafutures.org) for some further information.
By the end of the year, Georgia ninth graders must complete a supervised investigation of at least three potential careers and record them in their GCIS portfolio. The summer between ninth and 10th grade is when research into college options should begin, with a file kept on each school to compare later.
Over summer break, students should make a list of desired criteria to guide their college explorations and intensify their research into different schools.
The Home Stretch: 11th and 12th Grades
In junior year, the pace for college-bound students intensifies dramatically, and life will seem like a non-stop parade of deadlines. Standardized tests begin with the PSAT in October, and it takes discipline to balance studying for tests, keeping up with regular coursework, extracurricular activities and volunteer or employment responsibilities. Regular family meetings will keep everyone on the same page—making a weekly pizza date to talk things over will also carve out some quality de-stressing time. Using a family organization phone app such as Cozi or even a large-format wall calendar makes keeping track of test dates and application deadlines easier.
Now is the time to begin evaluating colleges in earnest. Under BRIDGE, Georgia students must investigate at least three postsecondary institutions and record the information in their GCIS portfolio by the end of junior year. Using the list of personal criteria and the school information they’ve gathered, students should make a ranked list of potential schools and make appointments to visit several. It’s also a good point to begin requesting letters of recommendation from respected mentors. Meanwhile, parents should begin reviewing the financial picture and making a budget.
The summer between junior and senior year is critical; in addition to working on jobs or internships, students need to finalize their list of schools and visit as many as possible, begin crafting application essays, organize financial aid info and consider applying early decision to the top schools on the list.
As senior year begins, students and their families have to hit the ground running. The SAT (and if applicable, the ACT) must be taken as soon as possible; it’s important to check the SAT subject test schedule, as some tests are only given on select dates. There may be final campus visits to make even as the essay and application process is in full swing, and it’s imperative to maintain grades and class rank, as colleges scrutinize these carefully. As the year progresses, students must track acceptances, and if placed on a waitlist for their top choices, consider applying to schools with later deadlines.
Parents will also be busy, as financial aid applications are time-consuming and must be completed as soon as possible. If their son or daughter has applied to both public and private schools, it will be necessary to complete both the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and the CSS (College Scholarship Service) Profile. As acceptances are received, families will need to compare the aid packages offered as they work together toward a final decision. It’s been a long road, but as the portfolio is finally closed with the entry “College,” at last it’s time to raise a toast at the graduation party and savor the accomplishment. All too soon it will be time to shop for those dorm supplies.