Hard to believe, but my firstborn starts high school this week. And while I hate to move the hands of time any faster, I realize that we need to start planning for his next step — college.
Traditionally, planning for college has been taken to mean saving for college, and that’s undeniably important. I’ll dedicate future posts to paying for college. Today, I’d like to talk about the steps leading up to that first tuition bill: preparing your child to get into the school of his choice. For my young freshman, that journey starts now.
I’m fortunate to work at BlackRock, where we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this and building out resources for parents and guardians who are in the same boat as my family. I’d like to share six steps that are worth taking with your high schooler:
1. Open the lines of communication. Early on (freshman year is not too early), talk with your child about his or her interests and career ideas. You’re not looking to etch anything in stone, but simply to spur some thinking around how talents and interests can become a way of life. The U.S. Department of Labor’s Career Search Tool can help your child connect the dots, so to speak, by matching his/her interests with potential careers.
2. Choose high school classes wisely. Colleges tend to prefer slightly lower grades in a rigorous program (AP, IB and honors classes) to all As in less-challenging courses. Note that most colleges recalculate the GPA based only on core subjects (English, math, science, social science, foreign language).
3. Double down: Grades + solid test scores = winning combination. Ideally, you want to have both good grades and high SAT and ACT scores gracing your child’s college applications. These are key determinants of merit awards. With that in mind, a few test tips:
- Take tests early to allow time to retest for a higher score if needed.
- Encourage your child to take the PSAT (Preliminary SAT), offered in 10th and 11th grade. It’s worthwhile “silent” practice, as scores are not released.
- SAT “subject tests” (there are 20 available) allow your child to showcase strength in specific areas. Ask your high school counselor about these.
- Test coaching and professional review courses are available. The pros and cons of these are often debated, but consider whether this might benefit your child.
4. Get “angled,” not “rounded.” Passionate involvement in a few activities demonstrates commitment, leadership, initiative, impact and an angle. Indeed, rather than “well-rounded,” colleges prefer “angled” students. (Think depth, not breadth, of experience.) Substantive commitment to a few activities is preferable to participation in several mini activities—and, truth be told, it’s more rewarding for the participant.
5. Build a resume. Encourage your child to document activities and achievements, and to begin early (again, freshman year is not too early). A student’s resume should include all those “angles,” as well as out-of-school experiences such as summer activities, work and hobbies that demonstrate responsibility and dedication, but also intellectual curiosity. Colleges like to see special talents or experiences that may contribute to an interesting student body. (Note: Special acumen in texting or the latest video game console does not pass muster here.)
6. Submit an application that stands apart. Beyond the resume, your child should also compile evidence of things that make him/her stand out — maybe it’s a portfolio of writing samples, a research abstract or a video of a particular talent. A creative and original presentation can go a long way in separating your student’s application from the rest.
Ultimately, if you’re like me, you want to help see your child’s way to an acceptance letter from the college of his/her choice. And the choices are many; there are more than 7,000 two- and four-year colleges in the U.S. alone. The search can be daunting. For help there, I invite you to check out our detailed flow chart, which is designed to help you narrow your search from the universe of thousands to 5-8 schools worthy of a site visit. And at the risk of tipping into TMI (channeling my teen) for one blog, I’ll mention just a few key points:
- Don’t start your search based on tuition and fees. There is merit aid (scholarships, grants, gifts) and financial aid … all of which impact the “list price” of a particular school. Try not to let the financial anxiety limit your options from the get-go.
- If not financials, what do we recommend you use to narrow your search? Your child’s interests, the geographic location you wish to target (do you prefer a school that’s a car drive vs. a flight from home?) and preferences around student body/culture.
- When it’s time to hit the road, plan to tour schools while they are in session to get a real feel for the environment. It can also behoove you to stop in at the admissions office to demonstrate interest.
One final bit of advice: Don’t try to go it alone. Tap the expertise of your child’s high school guidance counselor and seek the advice of a financial professional early. A college education is a big investment, but the statistics show it pays for itself in increased life satisfaction down the road.
Look for my next post on Saving for College in the weeks ahead.
Rob Kron, Managing Director, is the head of Investment and Retirement Education for BlackRock’s U.S. Wealth Advisory group. He provides practical information on topics that are important to every saver and investor of every age. You can find more from Rob here.