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The March Begins: College Planning, Ahoy!

The March Begins: College Planning, Ahoy!

By Mir Kamin

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.

Published September 9, 2014. Last updated July 24, 2017.
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • Jean

    September 10, 2014 at 10:45 am

    THis…this scares the bejebus out of me. My son is only starting fifth grade (please don’t make me think about middle school because I will probably break out in hives and hyperventilate) but this is looming. He too has special needs (and a 504 plan) so I am so freaked out by it all!!!!

  • […] going to be writing a periodic series for Alpha Mom about the college application process. The first post is up, discussing some of the things we’re already thinking about at the beginning of junior year, […]

  • Katie K.

    September 10, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    My son is a Senior this year.  We are in Wisconsin, so I am not sure if the Georgia system works similarly, but he is going to start at a 2 year state university.  It is way cheaper and the credits will all transfer to any other state university.  Here, if you do well the first couple years in college, it is much easier to get into competitive schools like Madison as a transfer student than as a freshman.  No one really cares where you start college.  Only where you graduate.

    • Mir Kamin

      September 10, 2014 at 12:14 pm

      I’ll go you one further and say that a lot of people don’t care where you go to college, but only where you go to grad school! 😉

  • Suzie

    September 10, 2014 at 12:36 pm

    My oldest is still in her first week of classes as a first year at Smith College. Definitely a stressful process, but also really interesting to see the self-discovery that she had during the process.  In the end, she’s at a school that’s a perfect fit, with significant financial aid, and we are both very happy.  And she still doesn’t know what her major is, and that’s okay.  

    And my younger one is a junior in high school.  So here we go again.

    • Suzie

      September 10, 2014 at 12:56 pm

      This caught my eye earlier in the summer:

      Interesting to me, though, because my own educational/career path was certainly non-traditional.  By the time I started my first job as an attorney at the ripe old age of 35, I shared an office with a woman my age who had gone to Yale for undergrad.  I went to a [nameless] religious college that lacks all academic credibility.  Yet, there we sat – in the same office at a very reputable law firm, making the same salary.  

  • Rachel

    September 10, 2014 at 12:45 pm

    My daughter just filled out her 1st 2 college applications last night. Stuff is starting to get real around here. =(
    In ND, all students are required to take the ACT their junior year of high school. Those that score in the top 5% have potential to a full ride at any state university in ND. Unforunately, one of the main state universities is in the town we live in (also my alma mater & a great school, for the record) and another is 70 miles away. Daughter would like to spread her wings & be at least 5 hours from home. I get that. The school that is 70 miles away doesn’t interest her at all, and the one in our town has great programs for her intended field of study, but she would prefer to move away. She scored in the top 4% which we were told is about the cut-off for the free money running out… she is thinking pre-med, so maybe she should do undergrad here (free or close to it, & living on campus (not at home)) and med school elsewhere? Trying to help her weigh all the options, pros & cons… we will see what the next 5-10 years brings. =) The schools she is interested in are in MN, which offer reciprocity for tutition, but wouldn’t qualify for the ND $$…
    She has filled out some online price calculators & Yale came back at $13000 annually for tution, room, & board based on our financials entered in the calculator. UND was $23000 (not iincluding $$ for great ACT score, but including our financials) and U of MN came back @$25000…. not sure how Yale can be almost half the price of a state school? I feel like II’m comparing apples to cucumbers and watermelons, and without all the required info…

    • Kay

      September 10, 2014 at 10:00 pm

      I was in a similar situation, I went to a private college and paid less than half the cost there than I would have at the state school. It turned out that the private school had a much larger endowment and many students received large scholarships, whereas the state school was underfunded and ended up being quite expensive. An important lesson in not ruling out schools based on “sticker price” — my friends who went to school in-state thought they were saving money, but ended up much further in debt! Very confusing, all of it.

    • Alice

      September 10, 2014 at 10:07 pm

      College financial aid is a *jungle*, but I can at least shed some light on the Yale question. A lot of the super-elite, older institutions have very sizeable endowments, and so they can give out a lot more financial aid than state schools will ever hope to. And they often really want to have geographic diversity – coming from ND may be a definite plus when it comes to aid.

      A lot of private colleges and universities can end up offering enough aid to be really competitive, but it’s hard to beat a full ride, especially if med school loans are waiting on the horizon. (If she weren’t pre-med, I’d suggest that she explore things like doing study abroad while at your local school, but I know that that’s a lot trickier when you’re in a major with lots + lots of lab courses.)

  • Nancy

    September 10, 2014 at 12:53 pm

    Beware the “free tuition” hype, since it isn’t always as good as it sounds! Massachusetts tuition for a semester is only $857 but their fees (not necessarily free!) are $4707. By comparison, Connecticut tuition is $4929 but their fees are $957.

    There is SO MUCH math to be done to figure out actual cost and expenses! Gah!

  • Stacy

    September 10, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    I have a step-son who is a junior this year.  He lives in NC, we live in VA.  His mother dropped out of high school, and she’s from another country, so not familiar with the college process.  Also, my husband will be deployed during the application season.  So, guess who gets to try to figure all this out, from another state!!!!!  So, not looking forward to it at all.

    • Suzie

      September 12, 2014 at 11:42 am

      Yep – my daughter qualified for “free tuition” in MA due to test scores.  That meant it would cost $22,500 to attend UMass Amherst instead of $23,000.  “Cost of Attendance” is what you really want to compare across all options.  I believe all schools are now required by law to provide that figure (and to provide the net price calculator).

  • Ani

    September 10, 2014 at 3:50 pm

    Re low AP scores…this is not a dealbreaker for a college application IF there is an explanation for it (the IEP and the related documentaiton.) It would in fact make an absolutely perfect topic for an admissions essay.

    Colleges will honor accommodations requested via their accessibility services system, they are required by law to do so. There will be an office on campus dedicated to processing these requests and facilitating accommodations.

    Re “fancy private vs. state institution”…I went to a fancy private place as did my husband. After spending years in academia (I am a tenured faculty member) we have come to the conclusion that certainly the flagship state schools have really upped their ante when it comes to the quality of their programs, particularly if you are in the pool of applicants that will be targeted for Honors programs. I cannot fathom ponying up the close to $56000 it would cost to attend my alma mater for ONE year. A good student can get as excellent an education (at the undergraduate level) at a solid public institution with a good program in the field of interest.

    • Suzie

      September 12, 2014 at 11:44 am

      I don’t even remember whether my daughter reported her AP scores to colleges?  It came clear that for many of the schools she was considering, they weren’t going to give her course credit for them.  we always saw the value as being limited to the application process, and not as actual college credit.

      p.s.  none of my replies are showing up on the comment I mean them to show up on! Let’s see if this one works.

  • Meri

    September 10, 2014 at 7:46 pm

    I went to an Ivy League college right before they switched to need-blind admissions, but still guaranteed to meet your calculated financial need according to the FAFSA. Since my family didn’t make much, we paid less than a year’s tuition for my whole 4 years. My school did include room and board in this, but I got a bit screwed the year I lived off-campus because my rent should have come from the money my parents were supposed to pay, and they didn’t have it. This was only about 15 years ago.

    So in short, be poor and go somewhere that meets calculated financial need with mostly grants. And apply early before they run out of aid money.

  • Sarah

    September 11, 2014 at 3:25 pm

    We just launched the first of our four – we’ll spend a total of 8 years in permanent college search mode by the time we are done. Sigh.  My one piece of advice: never underestimate the power of geographic diversity! Smaller schools with large endowments can be a great  thing. My Tennessee daughter is at a small, liberal arts school in Oregon, and her flights will end up costing more over the four years than her tuition, room and board.  We spent more time and money in the search process at the front end for her, but it was definitely worth it in the end!

    • suzie

      September 12, 2014 at 11:52 am

      Here’s a current list of the most “economically diverse” colleges.  This often translates into the schools who meet all demonstrated financial need.

      My daughter is currently at No. 4, and they DID meet all demonstrated financial need, and did NOT limit it to what the FAFSA determined that we “needed.”  It was more generous.