Though the primary audience here is homeschoolers, much of this advice is actually applicable for any parent of a middle school or younger high school child, regardless of the current method of education.
If you are currently educating a middle school or lower high school-aged child (9th or 10th grader), college selection and application processes may seem a bit far away. You know that you will have to involve yourself in a number of new and different activities, but you have time, right? Wrong. I write this article as the parent of a high school senior who has come to realize over the last couple or three months is that there are a few strategic steps that we could have, and should have, begun even as early as three years ago, even though I thought we were well ahead of the game.
The following is not a list of sure-fire ways to get your kid into college. Instead, consider this a listing of how to prepare in advance for the tasks that will potentially consume your days during your child’s senior year. I listed these in no particular order.
1. Make your list of people to consider writing recommendations NOW. Many scholarship applications require one or more outside references in addition to the information provided on the application. Moreover, unlike a public school child who can pull from a myriad of teachers and counselors, the list of those who can recommend a homeschooled child for a college and/or college money might be considerably shorter. The time to think about who is dependable, eloquent, and close enough to your child to write a recommendation is NOT when there are 5 applications due and 12-15 letters needed. Another factor to consider is who is willing to perhaps be called upon more than once should the need arise. Make sure that you have the right contact information for each person on the list, and also make sure via a conversation that they are willing and able to place your child in the best possible light.
2. Begin the scholarship hunt early. There is money available for any child to attend school. A place of employment could be a source of dollars; a social organization or business can offer funds. There are funds available for reading and reviewing books! Yet, the work to find scholarships, to be sure that you meet the requirements, and then to work against deadlines and coordinate those around you to do the same is no small feat. In our home, we actually put together a spreadsheet based upon due dates, work required for completion, and the level of competition (specific college, local, national, etc.) There are books available such as The Ultimate Scholarship Book by Gen and Kelly Tanabe, but also consider the following sites (free for signing up such that you get notices when scholarships that match your profile become available): http://www.zinch.com, http://www.cappex.com, and http://www.fastweb.com .
3. Roll college visits into your vacation plans. Why forego that camping trip you really want to take in favor of trekking through a college campus or two? Leah Latimer says it best in her Higher Ground: Preparing African-American Children for College (although her words apply to any child):
It’s all about early awareness and advance planning: Researching the road ahead before you reach it. Knowing what the choices are well before you have to make them. Realizing what opportunities lie ahead so you can position your child to take advantage of them. Understanding future requirements so so you can start preparing your child at an early age to meet them. (p. 23)
Enough said, right? If I might add anything from personal experience, each of our older children has had a vision of the college where they just HAD to go. That vision lasted for years–right up until we actually began making the investment to visit the campuses. The oldest did not even apply to her “had-to” choice, and our son, who is not far behind her, took his “had-to” choice completely off his list of considerations. You might not be able to visit every campus that enters your child’s dreams, but if you can narrow the choices down to 3-4, it might be well within your grasp to make a vacation out of a personalized tour. More importantly, it might save you and your child tens of thousands of dollars.
4. Take advantage of open houses, senior days, and other opportunities for guided tours, even if you do not take a 1-on-1 personal tour. Don’t just veg out while you walk. Compile a list of questions for the college tour guide/ representatives. The questions below are listed in no particular order.
1. Dorms–is housing guaranteed for all 4 years? If not, is there a guarantee, and if so, for how long? Is there help for finding housing off-campus?
2. How are advisors assigned, and what is the student/ advisor ratio?
3. How easy is it to change majors? Do you lose all your credits? Also, how many students double-major?
4. Application process–are you assigned specific contacts throughout the process, or are you just a number?
5. What is the timing on decision for acceptance vs. decision for financial aid? (try to find out whether you have to accept before you know how much money you’ll get)
6. Listing of scholarship/ grant opportunities?
7. Do they have a career placement office and what type of help do they offer?
8. Are internships available, and if so, where? What companies?
9. Library–what hours? (ask the same of the on-campus eating locations?)
10. What type of interaction will your child have with the surrounding community? Is the neighborhood safe?
11. (to ask of the college-aged tour guide) Why did you choose this college/ university?
5. Talk to your child–honestly and candidly–about money and debt. I would not presume to tell you what to say. Perspectives on college costs can range from “you’re not going to _______ school if it cost one dime out of our budget” to “going in debt is how everyone gets through college.” Either position, and all thoughts in between, have merit. But given that colleges will talk to your child about paying for college–not you, even though you might be the one who actually writes the check–you need to at minimum have the conversation so that your child’s eyes are wide open regarding the high costs of college and what is the plan to pay for it.
6. Prepare your child for test-taking environments. Test comfort and preparation can also be a determinant of money. National Merit scholarships are a function of high PSAT scores, and ACT and SAT scores translate into more dollars. Dependent upon the state requirements, however, your child may not have taken a standardized test before. There are study guides available for these tests in your local library, and these same resources are available for purchase. The College Board site also allows your child access to a daily SAT question. In any case, you don’t want your child’s first experience with these critical exams to be when the scores will be reported to various colleges. I should mention, though, that these tests can be taken more than once if the results are not as you want after the first time.
7. Keep records for yourself of your child’s accomplishments throughout the high school years, and document his/ her work as clearly and succinctly as possible. In some states, record keeping is standard protocol for homeschooling. In Texas, however, such is not the case, and which year your child did what can become a blur in the other flurry of activities. There are several companies that offer affordable record keeping tools, including transcript software. HSLDA offers free transcript formats. The various options in formatting gave us the opportunity to craft a transcript that highlighted our children’s strengths and minimized those other areas.
8. Write those essays. Our experience has been that, if an application requires an essay, your child will be asked to respond to something along the following lines:
- what higher education means to me/ why do I want to go to college
- what have I done/ will I do to help my surrounding community
- where I want to be in 5 years
- how will college help me reach my professional and non-professional goals
- what person has inspired me the most
If you can start your child to at least think about these items, if not write them, they will be so much farther down the proverbial road. All that becomes necessary at this point is tweaking the essays such that they fit a specific application.
Obviously, the demands of your home may dictate that additional steps are necessary, or there may be areas that, dependent upon your child’s goals, might not be necessary. Whatever is the mountain ahead of you when it comes to getting your child ready for college, I wish you the very best at climbing it. Be blessed, dear friends.
Belinda Bullard is a wife and homeschooling mother of three, Belinda is an author and the owner of A Blessed Heritage Educational Resources, a literature-based historycurriculum featuring African-American presence in history, as well as the contributions of other races to American history. A chemical engineer by formal education, she also serves as adjunct faculty for college distance learning programs. Belinda blogs at Simply Belinda and Chronicles of a Blessed Heritage.