Preparing for College | When should you start?

As homeschooling parents, we spend a lot of time thinking about our children’s education. Every fall, most of us spend time scheduling our children’s school year and tentatively planning the years to come. Even those of us with young children nervously wonder how we’ll fill out their high school transcripts when the time comes and whether we’ll have time to teach them all they need to know before graduation.

As our children get older, and start to form their own goals, it often becomes clear that a college education will be necessary in order to reach their dreams. As their parents, and their educators, it is important that we hold open every door we can. For potentially college bound children, that means planning with higher education in mind, and unless we are independently wealthy, working early to secure financial aid and scholarships, so they won’t have to go into debt.

When, though, should we start seriously planning for college? Most high school students attend public or private school, where they have the advantage of experienced guidance counselors who can lead them through the bulk of their college planning. They have led perhaps hundreds, or even thousands of students through the process of college applications, while we are likely new to the experience. We need to start early if we want to give our kids the same chances that their peers may automatically have.

First, tackle the transcript

One of the first things you need to do, if your child may be college bound, is take a look at their transcript. You can do this as early as middle school. Think of a transcript as a fill-in-the-blank puzzle. That’s all it really is, when you come down to it. Get a copy of the entrance requirements from a few favorite colleges, and compare the courses that will be needed in order to even apply. Make sure you have a spot on our child’s transcript for each of those credits.

Include on the transcript spaces for any additional courses that may be required by your state for graduation. And make sure that you have covered all the courses required for the major scholarships or tuition waivers offered by the schools of your choice or by your state.

 

 

You can fill the rest of the required number of credits for graduation with electives. You may want to encourage your child to pursue electives in their chosen major, or to diversify their transcript by exploring different interests, but these spaces should be easy to plan once the required courses are set.

Don’t blow off the exams

Did you know your student only has one chance to qualify for the National Merit Scholarship, and that’s by taking the PSAT in their junior year of high school? Did you also know that the test is only given in October each year, and as homeschoolers, we have to search for a spot to take it and may have to register months in advance?

College entrance exams, such as the ACT and the SAT, are easier to schedule, but you’ll also need to plan ahead for those, especially if you will be applying for scholarships.

Remember, taking a test more than once can greatly improve a student’s score, and even the PSAT can be taken early as practice. Don’t wait until the last possible opportunity to sign your child up for these important tests, or worse yet, miss the boat completely.

Consider the ASVAB

Some homeschoolers know exactly what they want to be when they grow up, practically from the moment they learn to talk. Others graduate high school still not sure which direction they want to go. Most fall somewhere in between.

The ASVAB, or Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, is a test given by the military to help determine the occupations for which a recruit may be best suited. Because there is such a wide range of specialties in the military, the ASVAB can be a useful tool for determining aptitudes for most students, and giving them a better idea of career options or college majors that may fit their natural skills.

If your student seems to lack direction, or feel overwhelmed with all the choices that lie before them, maybe the ASVAB or a similar test could help them to focus on options that suit them well.

Look for opportunities early and often

This year, my twins are sophomores. In October, our tribe hosted a college and career fair in October with representatives from more than a dozen colleges, as well as experts in financial aid and scholarships and folks who came to talk to students about vocational options. The event was aimed at high school juniors and seniors in the region, but because we homeschool I felt that it was important to attend early.

I learned quite a bit at the college and career fair, and felt better prepared to help my kids tackle the FAFSA and scholarship applications. I even learned about an ACT camp and a college prep camp they can attend next summer, to help boost their test scores and get them ready for college life. These are things I might not have known about had we not set out early.

Parents of public or private school kids don’t have to spend as much time planning their children’s education, or worrying that they’ve covered all the bases, because much of their schedule is planned for them. They have help from their counselors, to register for exams, meet scholarship deadlines, and even arrange meetings with college recruiters. If we’re going to do all that, on top of teaching their classes, we definitely need to be at least a year or two ahead of the curve.

Look for opening dates, not deadlines

One thing I learned at the college and career fair, that I didn’t know before, was that a major source of college money in our state is available on a first come, first serve basis. That’s because the applications often exceed the availability of funds, so the deadline for this particular grant is essentially moot. What matters is the opening date for the FAFSA, which was in October.

Your student is going to need their FAFSA completed before applying for many scholarships and grants, especially those awarded by the university itself. You’ll need to help them complete this important form as early as possible to maximize their opportunities for financial aid.

In general, it’s just going to be a good idea to apply early rather than late, if for no other reason than your child might procrastinate and miss a deadline altogether. So make it a habit to look for when application periods open instead of when they close.

It’s never too late, except maybe for the PSAT

If your child wants to attend college, and your family has fallen way behind in preparing for graduation, don’t despair. It’s never too late, as long as you are determined to reach your goals. True, you might have missed a firm deadline, such as the one on the PSAT, but there are other sources of scholarship money out there. There are loans and work study programs, or your child could attend school part time while working if need be.

My own mom didn’t attend college until after I started, and then she went through school with a perfect grade point average and came out with a new career.

Don’t give up, if college is the path to your child’s goals. Start working on a plan now, wherever you are in the game, and keep going until you get where you need to go. You can do it!

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