When it comes to getting into the college of your choice, the early bird truly gets the collegiate worm. Due to the growing selectivity of private colleges, waiting until the junior year to begin the search, application and financial aid processes can be too late.

That selectivity has its advantages, says Ken Faffler, director of recruitment and admissions at Northwestern College in St. Paul, Minn. “Not only are colleges articulating what kind of student they want, they are standing by it. As a result, the quality of students and academics increases, which produces a better quality graduate.”

Faffler has seen the college admissions process advance considerably over the last 15 years. “Many colleges now use a point system based on high school course pattern, leadership, extracurricular activities, references and legacy.”

Another advancement is the global experience of prospective students. “It used to be college was the student’s first venture into the world,” Faffler says. “But the world has gotten smaller and travel is common. Seeing international service and mission experiences on applications is almost normal.”

The financial aid process has also evolved. In addition to the traditional government and institutional aid, there are many other financial aid sources: parents’ workplaces, military, community and neighborhood programs, civic organizations, etc.

“Researching financial aid is easy thanks to the Internet, such as Fastweb.com,” he says. “You don’t need a consultant to do the research; it’s at your fingertips.”

The Student’s Search

Emily Carlson, a senior at Northwestern College, thought about college for years and had her choices narrowed down by the end of her junior year. “Keep horizons wide, but don’t have too many options,” she recommends.

Beginning the search in the freshman year is not too early. Even if the student hasn’t thought about college, it’s a good idea to chat with the guidance counselor about how to get the most out of high school. Get involved in extracurricular activities to help define interests, talents and skills. Look into Advanced Placement (AP) courses to earn college credit.

By the sophomore year, students need to explore colleges and begin the testing process. Check out college fairs. Take the PLAN (pre-ACT) and PSAT (pre-SAT). Carlson opted to take the ACT three times, which helped her learn the test process. “Don’t freak out about a poor score the first time,” Carlson adds. “Focus on how to take the test, not specific topics.”

During the junior year, students can retake the PSAT to improve scores. Take the ACT and/or SAT, then decide which schools to send the scores.

“When you receive the scores, meet with the guidance counselor to see what schools and scholarships you qualify for,” Faffler says. “Then visit the colleges you’re most interested in.”

“Don’t skimp on the campus visits,” Carlson advises. “Ask a lot of questions of students, tour guides, staff and faculty.”

“College visit events have changed in recent years,” Faffler says. “The formal hard-sell visit days talking to professors, taking tours and attending seminars on admissions and financial aid are disappearing. The focus is now on the informal soft-sell experience-based event where prospective students are among college students and experience college life.”

Carlson cautions prospective students to look beyond the promotional perspective found in the viewbooks and brochures. “Go beyond the photos of smiling students on green lawns surrounded by stately brick buildings. Find out what it’s like seven days a week in the cafeteria, classrooms, library and residences.”

By fall of the senior year students need to narrow the college list to no more than five, then complete applications. “Write drafts of application essays and have your parents and a teacher edit them,” Faffler suggests, “Send in early admission applications; many are due as early as November.”

If seniors aren’t happy with their ACT/SAT scores, retake them. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application should be completed as soon after Jan. 1 as possible. When acceptance letters start coming, students must decide which school to attend and notify the other schools by May 1.

The Parents’ Search

Faffler, Carlson and her parents, Gary and Cynthia Carlson, strongly encourage parental involvement in the college search. “Parents want and need to be involved. Keep them in the loop,” Carlson says. “After all, your education is their investment.”

The Carlsons offer the following advice.

1. Talk with parents in the neighborhood, school, church, work, social or sport activities about what they are doing to prepare.

2. Talk to the school guidance counselor; they specialize in helping parents with higher education advice. Those who home-school can talk to the counselor at a public school.

3. Make sure PSEO, AP and “accelerated” classes transfer to potential colleges so your child’s time and your money isn’t wasted.

4. Go to college/financial aid prep classes offered at church, work, a library community center, etc.

5. Discuss financial options with a financial advisor at your bank or place of business.

6. Visit college Web sites to learn about the school’s culture, philosophy, policies, etc.

7. Take advantage of college visit days and parent days to check out the dorms and classes. Prepare a list of questions so you won’t forget anything.

8. Network with parents or students who have gone to the college your child is interested in. There is nothing better than talking to people who have experienced the college firsthand.

9. Set aside a certain amount of money for your child’s education. Begin as early as possible – in the cradle! – and add to it as often and regularly as possible.


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