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How to Help Your High School Senior Prepare for College

Your high school senior will be off to college before you know it. Here's how you can help during their last year of high school and final admission steps.

Where has the time gone? In just a few short months, high school will be over for your senior student. But there’s still plenty of time and still plenty of work to do to help them prepare for college before stepping foot on campus. These tips can help you help them make the most of their last year before they graduate and go on to bigger and better things.

Assist with applications

Fall to early winter is when students submit college applications, which makes the beginning of senior year a challenging time for parents and students. Filling out applications can be time-consuming, tedious, and stressful, so many teens procrastinate until the last possible minute. Without nagging, help your teen create a schedule to work on applications, particularly ones that require additional essays. Remind them to build in time for reflection and revision too.

Do not fill out applications for them. You’re a supporting actor in this process. You can offer to proofread or double-check their applications but don’t push it. If they are open to your help, create a college application checklist together consisting of colleges, application deadlines, and steps they need to take to complete their apps. Together, you can break this big, overarching task into smaller, mini-tasks and set personal deadlines to keep them on track. Students may also need letters of recommendation from teachers, coaches, and others. Discuss who to ask. They’ll want to choose someone who’s familiar with their academic work and ask for a recommendation in a reasonable amount of time. 

Related: How to Help Your Reluctant Student Start Planning for College

Find funding

As your student is working on college applications, don’t forget you all need to file the FAFSA. “The biggest mistake families make is not filling out the FAFSA,” says Leah Ingram, author of The Complete Guide to Paying for College: Save Money, Cut Costs, and Get More for Your Education Dollar. “Everyone should fill it out, even if you think you’ll never qualify for student aid. If you’re hoping to have your student take any federal loans, they must have a FAFSA on file.”

Joanna Nesbit, a college finance expert and parent of two college students, recommends filling it out right when it opens. “It opens October 1, and it’s best to fill out the application as soon as possible because some states’ financial aid is first come, first served,” she says. You can complete the FAFSA online at fafsa.gov. Before you begin, gather your financial information, including bank statements and info regarding retirement accounts and other assets and liabilities. If your finances are complicated or you’re divorced, Nesbit recommends doing some homework in advance. “Pick up a copy of Kal Chany’s Paying for College Without Going Broke,” she says. “He takes you through the financial aid forms line by line.” Meanwhile, your student should build time into their schedule to continue to explore scholarship opportunities under a variety of eligibility criteria.

When college acceptance letters roll in, so will financial aid award letters. Review these letters carefully with your student, making sure you both understand the difference between grants, scholarships, and loans. If there’s a gap between college expenses and available financial aid, it’s time for some brutally honest discussions. “The federal government caps the amount students can borrow for school,” Ingram says, so parents are often asked to make up the difference. Nesbit adds that “If families need more loans above the student loan limit, they will have to decide between cosigning on a private student loan or taking out a Parent PLUS loan, putting parent credit on the hook in either case.” Be sure you thoroughly understand the impact of loans on your financial situation before making any promises.

Related: What's the Difference Between Scholarships and Grants?

Stock up on supplies

Now for some fun college prep! Your student’s senior year is a great time to stock up on the supplies they’ll eventually need for college. Think about school supplies such as a sturdy backpack, notebooks, and a computer; dorm room accessories like pillows, bedsheets, speakers, lamps; and basic necessities like laundry soap, shampoo, and snacks (but maybe save these for when you get closer to move-in day). Just resist the urge to go overboard. Bobbi Dempsey recommends reaching out to current students for input and advice. If you begin early in your teen’s senior year, you can shop the sales and gradually amass a collection of supplies.

Check health coverage

Under the Affordable Care Act, children can stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until they turn 26 years old. However, depending on where you live and where your teen chooses to go to college, your health insurance plan may be lacking. Some health plans, for instance, only cover care from preferred providers; if there are no preferred providers near campus and they need medical care, you may end up with a large out-of-network bill. Double-check your insurance policy and look to see if there are any in-network providers near their preferred colleges. This step is especially important if your student has a health condition that requires continuous care. Learn about student health insurance and on-campus health services as well. “Many colleges have their own health insurance program that you can buy into,” Ingram says. If so, compare the cost and coverage of the student plan to your current health policy to see which makes the most sense for your family.

Related: Health Insurance in College: What Options Are Out There?

Gathering information and supplies now can make senior year—and the transition to college—an exciting and less stressful experience for all. By spring, your teen should begin receiving acceptance letters. As you look forward to May 1 and your student making that final decision, Keep focus on all the little details so you know you and they aren’t missing anything important before heading off for their new academic adventure in the fall.

Looking for more tips to help your college-bound student? Check out our Parents section.

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