For many parents and students, the college application process can be overwhelming. There is so much to consider as your child chooses the right school, keeping in mind application deadlines to meet, forms to fill out, and visits to plan. We spoke with Janet Johnson, a college counselor and consultant for more than 20 years, about what parents and students need to know as they navigate this season.
What would you say is the number-one thing parents or students overlook, or the biggest mistake they make, in the college search process?
The biggest problem I’ve seen is just not being ready for the application process. So many parents have put it off and thought they would wait for the senior year, and they haven’t been learning about the process. They really need to be spending all of high school learning about it and going to as many college meetings as their high school offers. That’s where they start getting the big picture.
Another mistake is thinking that just one school is the best one. Students shouldn’t think that there is only one “right” school for them, because in reality, there are probably several schools they could be happy in. They should choose schools they want to go to and know all of them could be the “best,” that way they’re not disappointed to get a rejection letter. A lot of times a rejection isn’t because of your grades or test scores; it’s because they have too many people like you, and they just choose someone else.
Another mistake would be not examining the values of the institution your child is going to attend. A good fit for one person might not be a good fit for someone else. Many colleges won’t represent your core values. I think people should look at a campus’s atmosphere—like what they are promoting in and out of class—to help make that decision. You can do that by reviewing campus newspapers, finding out what clubs and activities are offered, and trying to find things that would allow your student to find like-minded people on campus. College is a time for your child to broaden her views, but it doesn’t mean she has to lose her core identity in the process.
People often say scholarship money is “everywhere,” but it can actually be hard to find. What are the best ways to find scholarships and financial aid?
My advice is first to have your son or daughter get college applications done early in the fall of senior year. I always want my students to be done by October 31, and then that frees up the rest of their time to look for scholarships.
After that, make sure they complete their financial aid forms, and treat it as scholarship money. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) as soon as possible after January 1 of your child’s senior year. Don’t wait to fill out the FAFSA until you do your taxes—many people think they have to wait, but that just slows down your opportunity to get money. Colleges start processing this in January, so if you wait until May to do your financial aid, it could be given away to someone else.
Use the many college search engines to find scholarships, and have your child apply to as many scholarships as he can. The local ones are where you usually get your money—check at his high school. Make sure he applies to all the scholarships at the colleges where he’s been accepted. Find out if the college automatically puts him in a scholarship pool, or if he has to look on their website to apply for each one.
It can be a tough for Christian students and parents to decide between a secular and Christian college. What are some strategies for considering this thoughtfully and making a sound decision? What do you think are some of the benefits of attending a secular or a Christian school?
That is one of the hardest questions. Even if parents have strong feelings that they’d like their child to go to a Christian school, their son or daughter might not want to. The student might want to be a witness on campus, and we definitely need Christian students on secular campuses. I think parents should talk about college with their children for more than just a few weeks; it should be a conversation they have over several years. If you didn’t do that, start having those in-depth conversations as soon as possible.
The benefit of attending a Christian school is it allows the student to continue to strengthen her beliefs. There are so many fine Christian schools with great academic and spiritual traditions. Many Christian colleges are more personal, and that’s a real advantage for many families. Students get to know their professors on a first-name basis.
One benefit of attending a secular college is that sometimes you have a larger choice of majors. They are often larger schools and have the benefit of having a variety of activities and diversity of thought. I think if you’re a strong Christian and strong in your beliefs, and you attend a Christian club regularly while attending a secular college, you’ll thrive.
To make that decision, take campus visits with your child. Have her read about what’s happening on campus, read the campus newspaper, find out about clubs, find out as much information as possible. It’s also the responsibility of the student to develop a strong support system whether at a secular or a Christian school. That includes good Christian friends, a small group, a church, a campus ministry to be actively involved in. College will be a challenge no matter where you attend.
This should also be a matter of prayer. I think if you and your student are truly, sincerely praying, you’ll come up with the right decision.
What would you say are the benefits and pitfalls of attending community college?
The first huge benefit is money. Some private schools are over $50,000 a year, and you can get into a community college for $3,000 or $4,000 a year. Because students live at home, there won’t be all the additional expenses, and your child can have a part-time job. Another advantage is that there are usually fewer than 30 students in a class, while at a university, freshman classes might be as large as 1,000. Some people get lost in those huge lectures, but it’s hard to get lost in a class of 30.
A pitfall of starting at a community college is that many don’t finish their associate’s degree or don’t end up actually transferring to a four-year school. Other kids may end up wasting time because the classes they take won’t transfer and they didn’t take time to make sure they were in a transfer program. If you’re going to transfer to a four-year school, you need to be in a transfer program. Work carefully with your college counselor to make sure your classes count.
Though most colleges don’t require students to choose majors right away, it can be helpful in the college selection process for students to have an idea of what they’d like to pursue so they can choose a school that will be a good fit. What are some ways parents can help students uncover their general passions, gifts, and interests so they have a foundation for thinking about majors?
Start by discussing careers with your child early and often throughout high school. Encourage them to do job shadows, internships, and summer work. In their junior and senior years, I usually recommend a student take a series of career inventories. If your high school doesn’t have those inventories, most local community colleges will. Use free tools online to check out careers. The biggest one is the U.S. government’s Occupational Outlook Handbook. It gives information on careers, salary, daily job tasks, amount of education required, and so forth.
If your child is really stumped and is completely unsure about a career, have him consider starting at a community college. This will save a lot of money and give time to explore options and learn more about their interests.