The March Begins: College Planning, Ahoy!
My daughter is about a month into her junior year of high school, and the inexorable march toward Operation Plan The Rest Of Your Life While You’re Still A Child—a.k.a., planning for college—has begun. She still has no idea what she even wants to study, but shiny college brochures arrive for her in the mail every day, and the pressure (at school; not so much from us) is there. As we begin this journey, here’s some of the things we’re already thinking about.
College where takes what?
I went to college (a million years ago). I also went to grad school (about a million minus four years ago). Theoretically I should be ready to do this dance with my own kid(s), but in reality I feel unprepared for what lies ahead. Some of this is because of my own unusual circumstances—I ended up transitioning to senior status just a few months before the end of what should’ve been my junior year, thereby graduating early and attending the one college to which I’d applied; I was lucky enough to have a college fund in place from generous grandparents that meant I didn’t need financial aid of any kind—and some of this is because things just feel different, now.
When I was headed off to college, where you went still very much felt like a matter of your whole future, with “good” schools assuring you a future beyond what any “lesser” school could offer. Since that time, college costs have skyrocketed, spawning a plethora of “expensive, top-tier schools aren’t worth it” think pieces. And while my children’s college savings are much more modest than what I had, we live in Georgia, home of the HOPE Scholarship. In a nutshell, kids here who maintain at least a B average in high school can receive upwards of 80% of college tuition reimbursement at an eligible public institution. That’s free money, right off the bat, for everyone, before any sort of merit scholarships or need-based funding.
All of this is to say: Our position is that the kids should plan to go to school in Georgia. We have many different public colleges and universities from which to choose, and unless they’re offered an equivalent financial package at an out-of-state school (unlikely), the HOPE funding is definitely the way to go. This means that—aside from any expectations we have for the kids about working hard and reasonable grade averages—there is a certain emphasis on maintaining HOPE eligibility (3.0 or better). Beyond that, because so many Georgia kids do take advantage of HOPE and stay in-state, admission to UGA (the state’s flagship university, and where my husband teaches) has become crazy competitive for a public institution. For this year’s incoming freshmen, the average GPA was 3.9. It’s sobering, and definitely something we keep in mind.
Testing, testing, 1-2-3
My kiddo took the SAT in 7th grade as part of qualification for a gifted/talented program, so she’s no stranger to it. She also took PSAT last year, and as a junior this year, will take it again to determine eligibility for a National Merit Scholarship (scores are reviewed and top scorers may qualify for cash grants; it’s a nice way for high scorers to get a little extra money for college without a ton of paperwork). While she doesn’t need to take the SAT again until she’s a senior, she has asked to take it this fall because she feels like she will probably want to take it more than once and she wants the practice. That’s fine by us. So she’ll do the SAT in the fall, the PSAT in the spring, and then (if needed), she can take the SAT one more time. While we’re not all that concerned about her scores, she does experience test anxiety and is, due to a processing disorder, slower in testing situations than her peers, so practice is a great idea. [Note: Beginning in 2016, the SAT will be overhauled, including a revamp of the writing section (which will also then be made optional). This delights me, but the changes will take place too late for both of my kids.]
Speaking of testing
The good news about the high school my kids attend is that there are tons of Advanced Placement (college level) courses from which to choose, and students in the college-bound track are encouraged to begin taking those AP classes right from their freshman year. The bad news is that the College Board governs the AP exams, and although there is a formal process by which you may petition for testing accommodations (and then appeal the rejection you receive), a child like mine with an IEP in place and uncontested testing accommodations at the high school will not be allowed any such accommodations on the exam which determines if your child will receive college credit for having completed this college course. This is how my brilliant but learning-disabled child finished an AP course last year with a 105 average and then received a 2 on the exam—not high enough to receive college credit, despite her superior performance in the class.
We had a bit of a come-to-Jesus both as a family and with folks at school after this experience, because we did have to stop and consider what it might say to potential colleges if my kid has a transcript full of AP classes but never manages to pass the AP exams. In the end, we made the decision to stay the course; she’s taking 4 APs this year, because those are the proper level classes for her to take, and we’re petitioning the College Board for testing accommodations (again) which we expect will be denied (again) and we’ll just have to wait and see how that all goes. (Certainly there’s a good essay in there somewhere about effort and reward and excelling in school despite challenges, no?)
In the meantime, be interesting
While I dislike the idea of encouraging kids to do extracurriculars “because it looks good on a college application,” the reality is that even a stellar student with no outside interests/activities is not going to look like a strong college candidate compared to peers who keep busy. We are lucky in that my daughter has always preferred to be involved in multiple activities (this is going to be a harder road to navigate with my son, when the time comes, as he believes computer gaming to be a sufficient extracurricular), and her resume is pretty diverse. We did make sure to do a little guidance in the direction of community service, this past summer, as that felt like a missing component. And when we hear, “I wonder if _____ might be fun,” our response is, “Only one way to find out!” Not every activity sticks, but we’re all for exploration. And who knows? Maybe she’ll stumble across her passion while she’s at it.
We’re realists; we know we’re in for a bumpy ride. Applying to college is stressful under the best of circumstances, so my goal as a parent right now is to strike a tone balance between “this is important” and “no, this isn’t really setting the whole rest of your life in stone.” Otherwise it’s going to be a loooong couple of years.