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Mom's Time Out

Navigating the world of college applications

Mary Angel

(4/2017) I find myself in a bit of shock. I am truly unsure of how my oldest child, my baby boy, is going to college next fall. Actually, truth be told, he started dual enrollment at the community college this semester. That is difficult to swallow but, going full time in the fall is even more difficult. I digress, my shock and dismay and joy of my son going to college is not the purpose of my article this month. My purpose this month is to help other first time parents of a college student navigate the world of college applications, acceptance, and how to pay for this wonderful (albeit exorbitantly priced) experience.

I will be the first one to admit that I was ill prepared to help my son navigate this amazing and somewhat complicated process. We started our college search much later than most and definitely later than we should have. We didnít start visiting colleges until the fall of his senior year in high school. So my very first piece of advice for all parents of college bound students (even those who are undecided about college) would be to start early with your visits. Start at the latest when they are juniors, if not sophomores. If your child is not sure what area of study they want to pursue then take them to liberal arts colleges or all of the colleges within a certain radius of your home. Which schools you take them to is not what is important; it is just getting them there.

As I stated earlier we did not start visiting colleges until my sonís senior year and then it was only one school, which he promptly fell in love with. It was a beautiful campus and the people couldnít have been any more pleasant. On top of that it was a Christian campus and that is very important to my son. When the tour was over we sat down with an admissions counselor (this is common practice after a tour). She gave him all kinds of information and brochures about the college and a t-shirt. I mention the t-shirt because the next college visit we went on (my son under protest because he had found "his college") he commented that he didnít even get a t-shirt. Please donít misunderstand, he was caught quite off guard by how much the second college impressed him but, he noticed that small detail. I on the other hand noticed that the tuition at the second college started $10,000 less than the first. I also noticed that the second college spoke more to his desired major than the first. I personally was very impressed with both campuses.

So now you have begun your college tours much earlier than I did Ė awesome. I would also encourage you to have your FAFSA completed as soon as humanly possible. The FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) is your online application that colleges will use to determine your need based eligibility for financial aid (more about this in a minute). I would also, at this point, encourage you to "motivate" your child to start applying to any college they might be interested in. One money saving tip that I learned too late was that many colleges will waive your application fee if you visit them first. I would also at this point hope your child has taken the SAT or Act or both numerous times. The more they take the test the better they will score (usually). There are many grants and scholarships out there for your child to begin applying for. Any scholarships that are not offered by or attached to a specific school can be and should be started as soon as possible.

Again I am getting ahead of myself. When you apply for admission to some colleges they might tell you they offer "Early Decision" or "Rolling Enrollment". I am partial to rolling or open enrollment. This means as students apply they will either be accepted or denied admission to the college they have applied for. Early decision is a whole other bucket of worms. At most colleges this means you are asking them to make a decision about you earlier than most and by doing so you agree that if they accept you, you will pull all other applications and go to that school only. This method is extremely stressful for the students and parents. Some schools will imply if you want the "best scholarship opportunities" you have to apply early decision. This is all a little too much of a strong arm tactic for my taste.

Next I want to explain the two types of scholarships/grants. The two types are need-based (you have demonstrated a financial need on your FAFSA) and merit-based (you are one of the best at what you do). Merit based usually requires proof in the form of transcripts and an interview and/or an audition. The one sad fact I have found out that has crushed the dreams of my son and many of his friends is that need-based is strictly that, however merit-based is both merit and need-based. One of my sonís friends worked extremely hard at getting the best grades and being the best at his instrument of choice so that he could acquire scholarships to pay for an education. He excelled on his SAT exam and blew the socks off of every interview he went on. The professors he spoke to assured him they had to have him in their department. Then when he got his scholarship offers he was first told that he had to pick and choose because you could not "stack" most of the scholarships. When his mom called to inquire about any additional merit aid available, she was asked why his original offer was "not enough" since the FAFSA clearly indicated that they could afford to pay at least $20k a year toward his education. This brings me to my final point. The FAFSA only takes into consideration the bare minimum information about your finances. It does care if you have a $400 a month water bill, a child going to a specialist every few weeks; need a new transmission on your car, have a car payment at all, had to replace the heat pump/AC in your home, or any other expense for that matter.

So the bottom line is start early, apply everywhere, and take the SAT as many times as you can, visit colleges as often as possible, donít expect a free ride or even an affordable one, and above all donít overlook the value of community college for your childís first year or two. Last but not least do your homework and research the schools you are interested in and look for outside scholarships.

Read other articles by Mary Angel