It may seem like you have ages between now and your child starting college. But there are things you need to do to prepare them – starting early and continuing up until after they arrive at school. If you haven’t gone through this process before, it can be hard to know where to start, let alone remembering all of the important dates and deadlines. This timeline is a general guide to what families and students should keep in mind on the path to college.
Before High School
Expose your child to college early and often.
Whether it’s simple conversations or visits to local community colleges and campuses, make college a part of you and your child’s normal life.
Start saving yesterday.
It’s never too early to start saving for college. Start with a 529 plan. Explore all our financial literacy resources here.
Instill study skills and good academic habits early.
Help your child with their study skills and academic habits as they progress in school. It is important to create a structured time each day to complete homework and check for understanding.
Freshman/Sophomore Years of High School
Support your child in honing their study skills.
Learning how to study is an important skill for high school and college success. While these lessons should start before high school, once your student begins their freshman year, it’s time to polish them. Here are some tips they’ll need for college.
Your student’s grades start mattering a whole lot more once they enter high school. While grades are not everything, and you should always praise effort over outcome, keep in mind that your teen’s grades will be a big determinant in where they can get in to college.
Start taking college prep courses.
Advanced placement (AP) courses are not only helpful in preparing students for the rigorous academics of college, but they are also a good financial investment. Your student can earn credits in college and test out of intro-level courses, saving money and allowing them to advance more quickly.
Meet with a school counselor.
School counselors are there to help you and your student navigate this process. Meet with your school counselor early and often. Let them help you make a plan, starting in your teen’s freshman year of high school.
Explore extracurricular, sports, and leadership opportunities.
Academics aren’t everything – in life or to prospective colleges. High school is also about exploring interests, gaining experiences, and having fun. There are tons of activities and opportunities for high schoolers – check with your school, local community centers, and other organizations in your area.
Take the summer to work or volunteer.
Your teen should be making use of their summers in high school. Whether it’s working to make and save money for college, or engaging in valuable volunteer or internship opportunities, these will be important in shaping your child’s outlook on what they want to do in life. It will also add substance to their college applications.
Consider all the options.
There are lots of options for students to pursue higher education – don’t limit your teen! Make sure to cast a wide net and explore a variety of schools and programs.
Junior Year of High School
Keep an eye out for scholarships.
Scholarships are a great way to fund your child’s education. Your teen should start looking for these early and often – some have deadlines as early as junior year of high school.
Register for the SAT and/or ACT.
Make sure that your teen looks up the dates to register for the SAT and ACT. Your student should take this test as early as possible, so that they can account for taking it another time if they aren’t satisfied with their score.
Make an initial college list.
Your teen (and you!) should start getting serious about learning more about schools that might be a good fit. Start big and research a range of schools, with the goal of making a list of 15-20 schools. Think about which schools your student is likely to get in to (safety), reach, match. And keep updating and refining this list up until your student applies.
Meet with a school counselor.
Your school counselor will be your best friend in navigating the college application process. If you need help paying for the SAT and/or ACT, be sure to ask the school counselors for fee waivers.
Plan for summer.
Whether it’s a college prep program, volunteering, or interning, your teen should be thinking about their summer before senior year now.
Take the ACT and/or SAT for first time.
Your student should take this test as early as possible, so that they can account for taking it another time if they aren’t satisfied with their score.
Go to college fairs.
College fairs are a great way to talk to reps and learn more about schools. Here’s how you can make the most out of college fairs.
Start visiting colleges.
If you’re able to, visit a few colleges starting your teen’s junior year. This is the best way to get a sense of what the school is like, and an opportunity for you and your student to ask questions. If you can’t visit a school, look into virtual tours, as many schools offer these as well.
Register for AP classes for senior year.
Advanced placement (AP) courses are not only helpful in preparing students for the rigorous academics of college, but they are also a good financial investment. Your student can earn credits in college and test out of intro-level courses, saving money and allowing them to advance more quickly. If your student is able to, they should take as many AP courses as makes sense for them.
Prepare for AP exams.
AP exams take place in May every year, so be sure your student registers and prepares.
Take ACT/SAT exams.
If your student feels like they need to take the ACT and/or SAT exam again to better their score, they should do this now.
If you’re able to, visit a few colleges starting your teen’s junior year and continue through the summer before their senior year. This is the best way to get a sense of what the school is like, and an opportunity for you and your student to ask questions. If you can’t visit a school, look into virtual tours, as many schools offer these as well.
Make a master list/calendar of schools and deadlines.
Narrow your initial college list down to 5-10 schools. Determine application deadlines for each school. Regular decision applications are typically due between January 1 and March 1. Keep in mind that early action and early decision applications are usually due in November. If your student is applying to some school with the Common App, this will become available in the beginning of August, and helps to consolidate deadlines. In addition to important dates, your student should be sure to track information about tests (fees, dates, and registration deadlines), required financial aid application forms and deadlines (aid application may be due before college applications), other materials like recommendations and transcripts, and your high school’s application processing deadlines.
Begin drafting college application essays.
Senior year is very busy, so the summer after junior year is a great time to begin college application essays. Remember, your student will likely need a unique essay for each school they apply for, so this can take a lot of time.
Identify potential teachers to provide recommendation letters.
During the summer after junior year, your student should think about the teachers who know them best and could provide a recommendation letter. It’s helpful for these teachers if your student provides a few bullet points for them, explaining why they chose them as recommenders and how they believe they’ve excelled academically in their classes.
Outline your financial aid plan.
Explore net price calculators to determine how much your family will need to contribute for your college education. These can be found on individual college websites. Create a list of all the financial aid options you plan to pursue and their deadlines.
Apply for scholarships.
Scholarships are a great way to fund your student’s education. Your teen should start looking for these early and often – some have deadlines as early as junior year of high school. Don't avoid the more intensive scholarships that require essays, as they often can give the biggest reward. Also check into local scholarship options. Since fewer students apply for these, you often have a better chance. Here are some tips to help your student find scholarship.
Senior Year of High School
Take the ACT and/or SAT exams.
This is the last time to take these exams before your student applies. If your student feels like they need to take the ACT and/or SAT exam again to better their score, they should do this now.
Revise college application essays.
Once senior year begins, your child should be finalizing their college application essays. It’s helpful to have a trusted adult, friend or teacher proofread.
Ask for letters of recommendation.
At least a month prior to the deadline, your student should ask their identified recommenders for a letter of recommendation. It’s also helpful to provide stamped envelopes addressed to the colleges where you are applying.
Gather all application materials.
Your student should make sure they have all the materials for college admissions including forms, test scores, essays, recommendations, and transcripts. They should check with their school counselor to be sure they have everything, and also ask them or their college for a fee waiver if they are worried about the application fee.
Start submitting applications.
Early decision and early action applications are due as early as November. Early decision applications require a binding commitment in exchange for early acceptance. For early action schools, your student will receive a decision early but can wait for the regular decision deposit deadline to make your final choice. It also never hurts to submit regular decisions applications early.
Send official SAT and/or ACT score reports to early application schools.
If your student applies early action or early decision, they will need to go to the College Board (SAT) and ACT Student (ACT) websites to send colleges the official test score reports.
Fill out and submit FAFSA.
The FAFSA opens October 1 and closes June 30. But you should fill out and submit this form as soon as possible. Here’s a FAFSA breakdown.
Respond to early applications and make deposits.
If you applied early action or decision, your student should send deposits and forms sooner rather than later. Make sure to check the deadline at your student’s school.
Finish submitting applications.
Regular decision college applications range from January 1 to March 1. It never hurts to submit regular decisions applications early.
Send official SAT and/or ACT score reports to schools.
Your student will need to go to the College Board (SAT) and ACT Student (ACT) websites to send colleges the official test score reports along with their applications.
Update your FAFSA application.
Your student needs to revise their financial aid applications with data from your most recent year tax returns if this information was estimated on your initial FAFSA.
Send tax transcript for verification, if requested.
Certain colleges may require verification of your financial information. Send the college copies of your (or your student’s) tax transcripts.
Receive decision on regular applications.
Regular decision applicants typically receive response in March or April. Here’s how to navigate any admissions decision.
Compare financial aid packages from multiple schools.
Once your student is accepted, colleges will offer a financial aid package (or “award letter”) consisting of grants along with suggested loans and/or work-study. Many students consider work-study options offered by their college if they cannot fully cover the cost of attending. Your student can state their interest in work-study on the FAFSA or by contacting the college's financial aid office. If the costs are still not covered, many students also consider loans. The best deals are often from subsidized federal loans. Learn more about breaking down financial aid award letters.
Consider a financial aid appeal.
If your family's circumstance has changed, or if a college's financial aid package does not meet your need, reach out to the financial aid office as soon as possible to appeal the offer.
Submit your enrollment deposit.
The final date to submit a deposit and lock in your place for regular decision applications is typically May 1. If you're worried about the cost of the deposit, talk to the school about a fee-waiver.
Take AP Exams.
AP Exams, which provide an opportunity to earn college credit, are offered each year in May.
Summer Before College
Complete ongoing paperwork for your student’s college.
There are always forms that slip through the cracks. Your student will need to make sure their college gets a final high school transcript and proof of graduation. Be on the lookout for last minute documents, like housing forms and financial aid/scholarship forms that need to be submitted.
Make sure your student attends orientation.
Orientation is an important time for your student to get acquainted with their school. Often this is where students will register for classes. Learn more about orientation here.
Conduct work-study job search.
Your student can coordinate with the financial aid office to identify work-study options. This needs to be finalized the summer before college begins or in the fall of their college freshman year.
Make sure your student’s health is covered.
Double-check your health insurance policy, and talk to your teen about it. Many colleges have student health plans. Fill out any immunization forms required before your student leaves home. For more, check out how to transfer healthcare responsibility to young adults.
Make or remind your student of any outstanding payments.
Each school will function differently, but you may have housing or tuition payments to make to the school during the summer.
Coordinate your teen’s drop-off to their college.
Your teen may be attending college nearby or across the country. Either way, plan how you will get your teen to school, who will be going along on the trip, and how you are going to transport all of your teen’s stuff. (Hint—start packing early!)
Figure out what kind of communication works for you and your teen.
Going from seeing your teen every day to not at all can be a big shock. Make sure to talk to your teen about how and when you’ll communicate with them while they are in school. Figure out what works best for both of you.
First Semester of College
Check in, and keep checking in.
Your support doesn’t end when they start school. Stay connected with your young adult and make sure that they are asking for help and support if they need it. Ask specific questions like: How are classes going compare to what you expected? Are you able to pay for what you need? How do you feel like you fit in with others? Let them know that you are there to listen and support them through their time at school.
Encourage your young adult to make connections with people at their school early.
From professors to clubs to deans, it’s important that your student makes connections on campus. Talking with professors and attending office hours is extremely important for academic success, in additional to other opportunities like research or networking. One of the best connections to make on campus? The librarians. They possess a wealth of knowledge, and the library is a great resource on campus for a lot more than just books. Encourage your student to explore all the different types student organizations. If your student finds their place on campus, they are much more likely to succeed.
This post originally appeared on ParentToolkit.com, a project from NBC Learn.
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