In 1990, I started my first job at a college. I processed federal student loans at a proprietary trade school. Two years later, I became an Assistant Director of Financial Aid at a four-year private college and then, five years later, the Director of Financial Aid at another four-year private college, where I stayed for seven years, also serving a stint as the Director of Admissions. This college was quite small, allowing me to interact with people in many departments on campus: residence life, student services, the registrar, and student accounts. I thought I knew all there was to know about college admissions and financial aid…
Then my twins became high school juniors and our own process began.
Here, in this first of a series of blog posts about my kids’ college application and enrollment processes, I plan to share all the new things that I have learned along the way. First: how to stay organized.
How to Stay Organized During the College Search
First, the obvious: colleges keep the U.S. Postal Service in business. The amount of mail your child will receive from colleges (most of which you have never heard of!) is overwhelming. Set up a system to deal with this mail, whether it’s having one “keep file” and one “circular file,” or a system that has the materials that have been read in one place and the unread in another. If you don’t have a system, you may never see your kitchen counter again!
Mail may start arriving as early as sophomore year when the PSAT and Aspire (practice ACT) tests are taken. In May of senior year, you will find great satisfaction in recycling all the brochures from your child’s unchosen colleges.
Not surprisingly, it is not only the snail mail that piles up, but the emails as well! Before registering for and taking the SAT or ACT, set up an email account that the student will use for test registrations, interactions with admissions offices, and college AND scholarship searches. Don’t do what my daughter did and put Mom’s personal email on the PSAT registration form! I still get emails from colleges looking to recruit her!
We began officially visiting colleges during sophomore year of high school, but the kids had been on college campuses before that to visit me at work, attend sporting and theater events, and attend summer camps. Casually checking out some local schools may help your kids get over the “wow, college is cool!” factor before seriously beginning the college search process. When you visit colleges, whether for an official visit or just an informal drive thru, keep track of what your son or daughter thinks of the school. We kept a notebook in the car, and wrote down our pros and cons after each visit. We ended up going back to look at these comments after all our visits—and all the schools—began to blend together. I have met other parents who videotaped their child’s reaction to a college visit. When I was working in a college aid office I met a mother who stated, “I know this is the best place for my daughter.” “How do you know?” I asked. “I can tell by her body language that she is comfortable here—smiling, interacting with people, and just relaxed overall. At larger schools, she was overwhelmed and nervous.” You know your child best and will be able to evaluate these reactions.
Eventually you will have a list of colleges to apply to. I found an accordion file folder with a pocket for each school was really helpful. Anything and everything that came in from a school my kids were applying to went into that pocket, and we referred to that file folder several times before making a final decision. When we decided on a college, we set up one file folder for info from that chosen school. The acceptance packet, financial aid offer, academic calendar, parent weekend invites, etc. are now in that file.
Staying organized throughout this overwhelming process may take some thoughtful planning at the beginning, but it will save you time and help you and your child make the best college decisions along the way.
Be sure to subscribe to the The Insider blog to be notified of additional posts in my series on ROTC, comparing scholarship offers, work-study, getting to know your school, and buying books.