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4 Ways 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 assist them during their last year of high school.

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

1. Assist with applications

Fall is the time to 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, let your child know they should schedule time to work on applications, particularly ones that require additional essays or personal statements. Remind them to build in some time for reflection and revision too.

Related: How to Help a Reluctant Student With College Plans

Do not fill out your child’s applications for them. You’re a supporting actor in this process. You can ask if they want you to proofread or double-check their applications, but don’t push it. If your child is open to your help, you can help them create a college application checklist: a list of their colleges, application deadlines, and steps they need to take to complete their apps. Together, break this big, overarching task into smaller, mini tasks. Help them set deadlines to keep your child on track.

Students may also need recommendations from teachers, coaches, and others. Discuss who to ask together. They’ll want to choose someone who’s familiar with their work, but don’t forget to consider how likely they’ll be to write and send a recommendation in a reasonable amount of time.

By spring, your child should begin receiving acceptance letters. One date to keep in mind: May 1. Many colleges set May 1 as the deadline for students to send in their deposit and enroll. Colleges and universities with rolling admission have varying deadlines, so make sure you and your student are aware of all these different dates.

Related: A College Essay Starter Plan for the Dog Days of Summer

2. Find funding

As your child is working on college applications, don’t forget to file the FAFSA (Federal Application for Student Aid). “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 out the FAFSA ASAP. “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.”

Related: How to Fill Out the FAFSA, Step-by-Step

Meanwhile, your child should continue to explore scholarship opportunities. “I recommend using an online database like FastWeb, where you can browse many scholarships in one place,” says Bobbi Dempsey, author of Degrees of Desperation: The Working-Class Struggle to Pay for College. However, you should encourage your child to explore local opportunities as well. (Their high school guidance counselor can be an excellent resource.)

Related: How to Apply for Scholarships the Right Way

Shortly after your child begins receiving college acceptance letters, they’ll also receive financial aid award letters. Review these letters carefully with your child, making sure you both understand the difference between grants and scholarships (which do not have to be repaid) and loans (some of which begin accruing interest immediately). 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.

“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,” Nesbit says. Be sure you thoroughly understand the impact of loans on your financial situation before making any promises to your child.

Related: 5 Little-Known Secrets to Getting More Gift Aid

3. Stock up on supplies

Now for some fun! Your child’s senior year is a great time to stock up on the supplies they’ll need for college. Think about school supplies (a sturdy backpack, notebooks, a computer), dorm room accessories (pillows, bedsheets, speakers, lamps), and basic necessities (laundry soap, shampoo, snacks).

Resist the urge to go overboard. Bobbi Dempsey recommends reaching out to current students for input and advice. “For most schools, there are now Facebook groups and online communities for students. Ask current students what items were lifesavers, what they wish they’d brought, and what they didn’t end up needing at all,” Dempsey says.

If you begin early in your child’s summer year, you can shop the sales and gradually amass a collection of supplies. “You don’t have to go overboard,” Dempsey says. “I just saw a Facebook post by a mom who bought several bins of supplies at a dollar store for under $100.”

Related: Top Gifts for College-Bound Students

4. Check health coverage

Under the Affordable Care Act, children can stay on their parents’ health insurance plan until the child turns 26 years old. However, depending on where you live and where your child chooses to go to college, your health insurance plan may be seriously lacking.

Some health plans, for instance, only cover care from preferred providers; if there are no preferred providers near your child’s chosen school 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 your child’s preferred colleges. This step is especially important if your child has a health condition that requires continuous care.

Learn about student health insurance and on-campus student 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: When Kids Go off to College: The New Normal

Gathering information and supplies now can make senior year—and the transition to college—an exciting experience for all.

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

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