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updated: 4/19/2011 10:36 AM

Where parents can find answers for college-bound teens

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  • Experts recommend that parents begin college planning while their children are still in middle school. They say this because choosing middle school courses can play an important role in gearing your teen toward a college-bound high school course curriculum.

      Experts recommend that parents begin college planning while their children are still in middle school. They say this because choosing middle school courses can play an important role in gearing your teen toward a college-bound high school course curriculum.
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By Wendy Moncada, Special to the Daily Herald

If your mailbox has suddenly become inundated with letters and brochures addressed to your high-schooler from different colleges and universities it's time to beef up on your college application know-how.

Experts recommend that parents begin college planning while their children are still in middle school. They say this because choosing middle school courses can play an important role in gearing your teen toward a college-bound high school course curriculum.

But whether you're getting a head start, worried about the rising cost of tuition or desperate for a refresher course on college planning, it's best to get answers now and not be stuck bombarding your already-stressed out teen with questions later.

We've compiled information from college counselors, experts and free and reliable online resource tools to answer some of the most common questions related to college planning.

What courses should my high-schooler take to get into college?

Even if they are not required for high school graduation, most colleges require at least three, and preferably four, years of studies in the following subjects: English, math, science and social studies, two years of the same foreign language and computer science courses or courses that require study and time outside the classroom are also recommended.

-- whatsnextillinois.org

What are AP classes and are they helpful?

Advanced Placement classes are designed to prepare high school students for the rigors of college-level work. After students complete an AP class, for which they earn high school credit, they can take the AP exam in that subject. Depending on their score and what college they plan to attend, students can earn college credit. The exams take place every year in May. It's possible to take an AP test without taking the class.

-- apcentral.collegeboard.com

How important are extracurricular activities when applying to college?

Believe it or not, it looks better on a college application if you are involved in one or two extracurricular activities than if you are in nine or 10 because then they know you are committed to them and may have leadership positions within them.

-- Morgan McMillan, College Illinois! core member and outreach representative

Should my high-schooler take both the ACT and SAT?

Ask your high school counselor or an admissions officer at the college or university you plan to attend about which test to take, and whether you should take them both. Both the ACT and the SAT allow students to take the test multiple times. In Illinois, all high school students are required to take a free school-administered ACT test in April of their junior year.

-- ACT.org

How can I help my teen choose schools?

Students should choose schools based on three categories -- match, safety and reach schools. A match school is one where the student's academic credentials fall well within the school's range for the average freshman. A reach school is one where the student falls below the range but there is still a possibility of acceptance. A safety school is one where a student's credentials fall above the range and it is reasonably certain they will be admitted. Help them make a list of colleges that fit their specific interests and don't include a school that they are not willing to attend. Apply to a couple schools from each category.

-- princetonreview.com/college

Should we use the Common Application?

A lot of universities use it because it is one application you can fill out and send to any of the 415 schools that accept it. The application is treated fairly and in some cases has replaced the school's own application.

-- commonapp.org

Are recommendations and essays necessary to apply?

Not every school application requires these but many will make them optional. Our advice is that anytime there are optional supplemental materials, especially essays, the student should send them in because they help give your application a higher consideration. When given an open essay topic it is best to write about a time when the student overcame a difficult situation or obstacle.

-- McMillan

What is the difference between "early admission" and "early action"?

Applying early admission raises the student's chances to get admitted because the pool of applicants is smaller. However, be aware that early decision means you agree to attend the college if it accepts you and offers an adequate financial aid package. Early action plans are not binding and if you've been accepted, you can choose to commit immediately or wait until spring. Single-choice early action is a new option offered by a few colleges which means a candidate can only choose to apply early to one college.

-- CollegeBoard.com

Should we fill out a FAFSA application?

Even if you don't qualify for financial aid, it is important to fill out the FAFSA to be considered for subsidized and federal loans and Illinois state grants. The FAFSA form is the key to most financial aid. From it, the government calculates your expected family contribution and colleges then subtract that from the cost of attendance, including tuition, room, board books and personal costs, to know how much aid to give you. The FAFSA form is available Jan. 1 at fafsa.gov, and every college has their own deadline for completing the form for highest aid consideration. Without filling out the FAFSA you are left with private lending options which carry higher interest rates.

-- Jan A. Maas, guideforparents.com

Should my teen choose a college based on cost?

In terms of applying, do not let cost be a hindrance because you won't receive final financial aid awards until April. Many of the private schools have more money to give out than the public schools and your cost might actually be lower than expected. Wait until you have award letters to make a final decision.

-- McMillan

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