Action Plan for College: Senior Year
By Joe Messinger, CFP®
July 15, 2022
Updated July 2022.
Senior year…the pinnacle of the high school journey. This year will fly! Senior year is filled with milestones and memories, and we’re sorry to say — stress. Understanding the tasks ahead and having a game plan can go a long way to easing your burden and allowing you and your student to enjoy senior year.
Let’s Back Up: BEFORE Senior Year
Taking advantage of a student’s free time in the summer before the senior year can go a long way to easing the stress at the start of school. If your student is college-bound, you should know that the Common Application used by over 900 colleges goes live on August 1st.
Students can create their accounts and begin to fill out some of them now. Some colleges use an alternative to the Common App. Research each college to learn their process for application.
The summer is a great time to finalize the college list. Go on official visits (or revisit) those colleges that the student prefers. Talk through the college list with your child.
Are there a variety of schools on the list? Create a detailed spreadsheet, or use another tool for tracking information for each school, like our College Money Report™. Make notes about the pluses and minuses for each. Create a calendar of application deadlines and other dates as needed.
Summer is also a wonderful time to start writing the college application essay! Familiarize yourself with essay prompts specific to the Common Application, or schools on your student’s list.
Tackling some of these tasks in the summer will give your student breathing room for when high school coursework and activities begin again.
Be sure to understand the options available. Colleges may offer different application options including early decision, early action, rolling admissions, or regular admissions.
Early decision can only be used at one college. It is a binding application. If the college chooses to accept a student early decision, the student removes themselves from all other college candidate pools. The danger of early decision is you are accepted without knowing the final cost.
Early action is another early application deadline. A “regular” deadline is often January 1. With early action, a student is showing their preference for those colleges they apply early action, but it is not binding and can be used at multiple colleges.
These early application dates are often November or December 1st. (We’ve seen some as early as October.) Applying early action is often required for merit scholarship consideration. For more detail on the types of application deadlines, click here.
Don’t let senioritis take over. Although only the first three years of high school will go on the transcript used with the application, most colleges still do a mid-year grade check so students need to remain dedicated to their school work. Find help if needed.
Meet with guidance counselors to properly plan for post-high school and make sure your student is on target to fulfill graduation requirements. They are an important touch point throughout this year.
During the first few months of senior year, students will finalize their applications, finish their essays, and obtain letters of recommendation. Parents can offer to review the application and essay for their child, but be sure the writing and material are their own. Students should think about who they would like to request a letter of recommendation from and talk with that person about it. Remember to give LOTS of advance notice to that person.
In an ideal situation, seniors will have narrowed down their college major to 2 or 3 options. Having a clear major and future career in mind makes the selection of the college much easier because you’ll look for a school strong in the area of interest.
Students find success in identifying a college major when they know things about themselves–their interests, skills, challenges, values, etc. Students may need help with this thinking. Sometimes interest surveys can help but don’t be discouraged if they don’t.
Senior year classes and summer opportunities can continue to help students explore their interests. Students can research available careers online. Watch some YouTube “day in the life of” videos about potential careers. The more research the better.
Those students headed to the military will meet with a recruiter and enlist. Military service can help pay for college later.
Students heading into a career straight out of high school can write up their resumes and ask for references from their teachers and employers.
Paying for College
Part of creating the college list includes understanding how much each will cost. First, estimate your family’s Expected Family Contribution by leveraging our free College Money Report™.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA goes live in October. The student and one of the parents will need a FSA ID prior to getting started. Gather your most recent tax returns and get that task done. Even if you aren’t going to qualify for financial aid, it is a good idea to file one. Federal student loans will require filing. Avoid these potential FAFSA mistakes.
If your family is a potential need-based aid candidate, be sure to use that in the college search. Identify those colleges to which your child could be admitted which will provide the most free money.
Make sure to apply for aid prior to that college’s deadline. College funds are first come, first served so the earlier you apply, the better. Colleges will not make exceptions for filings past their deadline date.
The number one source of money for college is the college itself. Seek out those schools that provide merit aid your student might qualify for. Beyond that, your student can find and apply for outside scholarships. Check with your guidance counselor for local opportunities. If you decide to find outside scholarships, be sure to have a game plan and stay on top of the deadlines and requirements for each.
Testing – ACT and SAT
By senior year, your student has probably taken the ACT or SAT a few times. Students sometimes take these tests one more time before the end of December. Students will need to request testing scores be sent from the testing agency directly to the college they are applying to. Be sure to give plenty of time prior to the application deadline for test scores to be sent.
May 1st is “decision day.” Prior to that, your student will have received acceptance letters and financial aid award notices. These two documents often come separately. You find out you were accepted way before you find out how much it will cost!
The financial aid award notices are not always straightforward and easy to understand. (A pet peeve of ours!) Take some time to understand how much is free money that you don’t have to pay back and how much of the offer is loans and work-study. Also, consider whether or not to appeal an aid award offer. Successfully appealing an aid award requires some additional thought and planning.
Before committing to any school, be sure both you and your child understand how much college will cost for all four years. Your student needs to understand what a student loan monthly payment will look like after graduating. What are the terms of a loan? How does that work? Now is a good time to talk about budgeting.
Once the final decision is made, it is time to write the check. The student accepts the college’s offer, and a deposit is made. Let the celebration begin! Time to break out the new college t-shirt!
Summer Before College
Over the summer, your student’s new college will host orientation events. Students will choose their first college courses and select housing. Shopping will commence for the student’s new digs. Final transcripts will be sent to the college in May or June.
Make sure your student is familiar with tackling daily tasks they will need to conquer on their own at college like doing the laundry, cooking, cleaning, what to do if they get sick, how to handle money, etc.
Having a job over the summer helps students understand the work environment with management and customers. Talk with your soon-to-be college student about who pays for what at college. Having a job can help defray some of those costs.
Finally, enjoy this time before college together. Your “baby” has come a long way, and you are starting on a new adventure as they begin their college journey. Congratulations!
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