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How to Help Your High School Junior Prepare for College

Junior year of high school is when college planning kicks into high gear. Check out these four tips to help your teen prepare for the whole process.

Junior year of high school is when college planning and preparation really kicks into high gear. It can feel like a lot of pressure trying to keep up with everything. Help your student stay on track with these four academic and college focus points for the year.

Challenging academics

Encourage your high school junior to enroll in at least one Advanced Placement (AP) class. Students who participate in AP courses can take the corresponding exam at the end of the semester to earn college credit, depending on their score. Most colleges and universities in the country give students credit for AP scores of 3 or above. Students who do well on AP exams are also able to take more advanced coursework in their first year of college.

Also have them consider dual enrollment courses, which allow students to earn credits for college courses on participating campuses while still in high school. These may lead to significant savings on a college education because most high schools cover the bulk of the costs for dual enrollment courses. Review your student’s transcript and course schedule against high school graduation requirements and college admission criteria. What classes does your student still need to take? If they’re not sure, a meeting with their counselor can help them clarify expectations and plot a reasonable course through the remainder of high school.

Related: Should I Ace Easy Classes or Push Myself in Hard Ones?

Standardized testing

Even with test-option policies gaining popularity, many colleges still consider ACT or SAT scores in the admission process—and more still use these scores for merit-based scholarship eligibility. Make sure you and your student know which test is preferred by their colleges of interest. Some schools will accept either test scores, but some require one or the other.

It’s a good idea for you and your student to familiarize yourselves with the test format well in advance of the exam date. You can easily find practice tests online, and many libraries carry up-to-date SAT and ACT prep books that include practice exams. And pricey test prep services aren’t necessary! According to Leah Ingram, author of The Complete Guide to Paying for College: Save Money, Cut Costs, and Get More for Your Education Dollar, test prep is “only a good investment after your child has taken the test at least once. See what their scores come back as then look at your student’s target schools and figure out if a class or tutor makes sense.”

If the average ACT score for admitted students at their dream school is 29 and your student scored a 26, additional tutoring or test prep might help them earn a few extra points on a retake. That was the case for Ingram’s daughter: “She had great overall SAT scores but wanted to pursue engineering, so we needed to get her math scores higher into the 700s,” she says. “We invested in a tutor who worked with her for a few months, she took the test again, and the outcome was what we hoped.”

Related: Top 4 Myths About Money and the ACT That Parents Should Know

College fairs and visits

Most students submit college applications in the fall or early winter of senior year, so high school juniors should work on narrowing down their choices through college fairs first. These events allow students to meet with representatives of many different schools to ask questions and gather information. From there, ask your teen which colleges they’re considering and why. These discussions will help you better understand their goals and desires so you can offer useful guidance. A student who wants a Greek experience on campus, for instance, should comb college websites for information about fraternities and sororities.

Once they have a handful of colleges they're really interested in, help them schedule college visits. “Your student needs to know what they want or don’t want in a college, and sometimes being in the space is the only way to determine that,” Ingram says. In-person campus visits allow students to go beyond the glossy veneer presented in college marketing materials and see what it’s really like to live and study on a particular campus. Encourage your student to sit in on a class, tour the dorms, check out recreational opportunities, and talk to as many people as possible when on campus, including current students and professors.

You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on college visits. You can begin your search by “visiting nearby schools with different architecture (gothic, colonial, traditional, modern) and different campus structures (traditional quad, spread out, multiple campuses, urban, rural) to figure out what feels right to your student,” she adds. If a dream school is too far away, some colleges may offer fly-in programs that are worth investigating and nearly every college offers virtual tours these days.

Related: 7 Ways to Make Campus Visits More Affordable

College cost conversations

If you haven’t already discovered your Expected Family Contribution (EFC)—or the amount of money colleges will expect you to contribute toward your teen’s education—you need to figure it out now. A variety of online calculators, including the College Board’s EFC calculator, can help you determine eligibility for financial aid.  Once you have your EFC, you and your student can use the net price calculators available on every college website to estimate what it might cost for your child to attend specific schools. (Pro tip: The easiest way to find a college’s net price calculator is to type it into the website’s search bar.)

“It won’t be easy to determine probable merit aid before a student has much of an academic profile, but you can play with grades and test scores to see what kind of merit [aid] pops up,” says Joanna Nesbit, a writer who covers college for U.S. News & World Report. It’s also time to begin exploring scholarships if you and your student haven’t already. Begin by looking into scholarship opportunities offered by your state. “Washington, for instance, offers a robust STEM scholarship for qualifying students attending college in state,” Nesbit says. “California has a good need grant [CalGrant], and Florida has the Bright Futures scholarship. New York has the Excelsior scholarship for families earning less than about $110,000.”

Related: Parents, It's Time to Communicate About College Costs

It’s okay to feel like the college search is adding stress to your life, but if you’re stressed, imagine how your junior feels. Try to keep calm and help encourage them to take the reigns of this process with you there for support and guidance whenever they need it. This is their process, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need a cheerleader and shoulder to lean on along the way.

For more advice on how to help your high school student succeed, check out the blogs and articles in our Parents section.

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