Baker’s Dozen – Navigating the College Years From High School and Beyond

We’ve learned a lot from our kids as they’ve reached high school and college age.  Having five children allows one to not only learn how to navigate these years, but also allows one to use that knowledge with the younger kids.

Here is what we have learned.  It’s worked for us and something different may work for your family, but some of this information would have been helpful to us with our older children so here goes some sharing.

Caveat – DSH and I have always been involved and engaged parents.  Do not mistake that to mean helicopter parents.  We have known our share of those.  We have also known our share of parents who are totally unengaged with their children especially the older that they get.  One of the main challenges in parenting is to walk the line between the two.  There is no manual for this.  Our rule – the older they get, the less involved you are in the day-to-day stuff.  If you are working harder than your student with regard to education, activities, work, and life in general, then you are out of balance.  But that is a post for another day.  I have enclosed, in parentheses, who we feel should have primary responsibility for each step.

Finally, all of this requires a certain amount of communication between parent and child.  Sometimes, that is the hardest part because parents tend to lecture and children think they know it all.  Look for those times when things are going well – talk and listen.  Back off when necessary and re-visit later.

1)  Keep a high school file for your student (parent).

At the beginning of high school, college is very far away to the student (heck, it’s still far away to them when they start Senior year), but frighteningly close to parents.

Keep a record of your child’s accomplishments by saving those report cards (they list class rank and GPA and classes taken); by recording AP classes taken and honors received; by keeping certificates of achievement and notes about participation in school clubs, organizations, and athletics; and by listing their leadership roles and volunteer and non-school activities.

This will make it SO much easier when it comes time to fill out all of those college applications.  Oh, and if your child decides not to go to college – well, this information will still come in handy for trade / vocational schools and job applications.

2)  Make sure your child is taking the classes that they need not only to graduate but to attend college, trade / vocational school; or start working (parent).

Every high school offers, starting in 8th grade or the Summer before Freshman year, information on the track of classes your child should take to achieve their goals for life beyond high school.  Don’t wait until Senior year, or worse yet, 2nd semester of Senior year to discover that your child did not take enough math, science, history, communication arts, etc. to achieve them.  Playing catch-up is not easy or fun.

Even students not going onto college will benefit from taking business classes such as accounting, business, and marketing.  Most high schools also offer an array of vocational type classes for students to not only determine interest, but to get a head start on their futures.

I have been amazed, over the years, to hear parents and students act surprised when they realize that their choices have resulted in them not being prepared to enroll in college.  They blame the school, counselors, whomever.  I blame them.  Being unengaged in your child’s life just because they are getting older is no excuse.  Schools provide the tools – use them.

3)  Make sure your child is active and engaged in high school (parent).

They don’t have to be athletic all-stars.  They don’t have to be honors students.  They don’t have to be involved in a LOT of activities – one or two things that they are really interested in will make a difference.  High schools offer almost endless opportunities for students of all abilities to get involved in something so don’t miss out.

You never know when a seemingly unassuming activity will provide a scholarship opportunity or make the difference in acceptance into a college, other program of study, or distinguish you from the hundreds of other applicants for the same job.

4)  Get to know your high school teachers, counselors, coaches, and others who work at the school (student).

Most of these people are there because they have a passion for kids.  Believe me, most of them are not in it for the money or for the glory because teenagers can sometimes be a difficult bunch to manage.  Making a connection with one or more of these people may help you to get a special letter of recommendation (rather than a generic one) or referral to a job or scholarship.  They may also help you to navigate your way if your parents are unavailable or unable to help you.  Or you may want or need the advice of an adult other than your parents.

5)  Apply for scholarships in high school (student).

Don’t wait for second semester of senior year.  Many scholarship applications start much earlier – some even before Senior year.  Every high school has a counseling department that works hard to make scholarship information available to students.  Blaming the school for not telling you about them is not an option.  Taking  responsibility for your financial future starts with you.

Look for scholarships beyond your high school – your bank, your parents employers, your employers, your clubs, etc.  There are scholarships for just about everything.  My twins applied for a scholarship available only to multiple birth children.

Special Tip One – Don’t wait until the 11th hour and expect the secretary in the counseling office to drop everything to work solely on your behalf to get the transcripts and other information sent.  Be nice to this person, and they may put in an extra effort for you when you really need it.

Special Tip Two – Parents should not be completing these applications.  You may nudge your child to get them completed, but as a Scholarship Co-Chair for a volunteer organization, I was appalled at the parents who were not only completing the applications for their child, but who were also writing the essays for them.  It was painfully obvious who these were, and they did not make the cut.

6)  Take your ACT and / or SAT and other placement exams early and often (student).

Plan on starting your Junior year to allow yourself time to re-take them to get the score that you may need to enter the college of your choice.

Once you start this process, you will be overwhelmed with information from schools competing for your attention.

7)  Get your college applications (student) and FAFSA application completed on time (student and parent).

Don’t forget to pay the application fees.  Some colleges waive application fees so pay attention to the dates and offers you receive.

Do not fall for services that you pay to fill out your FAFSA application.  Once you have paid and given them the information that they need, you could have done it yourself.  You will need to update this every year.  We have found that they increase in value the further along your student is in school so if you don’t get much the first year, keep trying.

Pay attention to early admission deadlines and special scholarship deadlines, too.  They aren’t always the same dates, and they sometimes require extra paperwork.

You may wish to consider placing a deposit for more than one school if you cannot make up your mind.  Once you do decide on your final choice, these are usually refundable.

Once you make your decision, make sure you pay your deposit to reserve your spot and let them know of your intentions.

Request refunds, by the deadlines, from schools you decided not to attend.  What is amazing is that your mailbox will be empty almost overnight once you make your decision.

8)  Register for your classes early, do NOT buy your text books from the university book store, and wait to buy your college supplies until you make your decision (student).

Take advantage of the earliest possible time to register for classes because the best times and most popular classes fill up quickly.

Do NOT buy your books from the university book store unless you want to pay premium prices for brand new books.  Through research, our middle child found that the best prices for good used books is through Amazon.  You can obtain the ISBNs from the school after you register for classes.  Then, sell your books back after each semester.  Start with your friends.  The next best place to start is the nearest off-campus book store which our middle daughter found paid the best prices for used books.  Then try the university book store.  Then use Amazon’s service to sell back.  It’s surprising the number of times we have mailed used text books to our student’s off campus book store.

Making this effort will mean almost a wash each semester in text book purchases.

Wait to buy that laptop, printer, refrigerator, hot plate, microwave, etc. until you decide on a school and see what they offer, require, and do not allow.

9)  Make sure you are taking the college classes you need to graduate on a set schedule (student).

We expected our children to complete college in four years.  The five year plan is becoming increasingly more popular, but you pay a high price financially.  Some colleges even limit the number of hours that students can take their Freshman year and not all required classes are available every semester.  While a transition is important and necessary for some students, others are quite ready for the rigor of a regular class load.  Parents should be providing a supportive and informative role at this point.

10)  Make sure you are active and engaged in college (student).

See #3 above.  Believe me, there is time between classes, studying, and partying for getting involved in a few activities.  Take a leadership role.  Think scholarship (see #11 below).  Partying is fun, but it will not enhance your resume.  Being involved will help you land those internships and future jobs.

11)  Apply for scholarships and internships (student).

Applying for scholarships does not end in high school.  Pay attention to your GPA so you don’t lose your scholarships.  If you have to skip a party to attend a dinner or other social event to secure a scholarship, it’s totally worth it (dress the part).

There are numerous scholarships out there.  Become friendly with the staff and professors in your chosen major.  There are department scholarships, alumni scholarships, Greek life scholarships – the list is unending.  Our middle child was actively involved in her school.  She was able to replace her scholarships that expired with new ones and even added a few at the end which resulted in her getting a refund to her personal bank account her last year of school.  She even got a significant scholarship from a company with whom she had a paid internship.

Some scholarships require full-time student status which is usually more than 12 credit hours.  We found this out the hard way when our kid planned her schedule so she only had to take 10 hours her last semester.  She lost out on $875 for the semester.  Ouch.

Find out where the campus career center is your Freshman year.  Attend the career fairs (dress the part).  Even if you do not yet qualify, you will gain valuable experience preparing a resume and meeting with and interviewing with possible future employers.  Do not pass up an internship opportunity just because one is not exactly in your desired field or area of interest.  Not only will it enhance your resume for future jobs, but you may be surprised to learn something new.  Believe me, there is time in-between partying to do this.

Each of our children landed permanent employment after college in large part due to their internship experiences.  And one of our children graduated with a history degree so being a liberal arts major is not an excuse or roadblock.

12)  Keep your social media sites cleaned up (student).

Employers look at social media.  Keep the risqué pictures and off-color comments off your pages.  Have fun, but be smart.

13)  Skin in the game (parent and student).

This is DSH’s number one rule.  We have always required that our children work.  They have managed to do so even while being good students and taking challenging courses and being active in athletics and other activities.  Most employers work with student’s schedules these days so there is no excuse.  Once they work, they had their own checking and savings accounts and debit cards.  They learned to manage their own money.  We had them pay their own bills (even if we had to supplement) so that they can “feel the pain” of paying the bills.

Our children were given a meager $20 a week allowance while in college (for the first two years only).  If they needed more than that, it came out of their own funds.  Our middle child managed to save most of her allowance money, and still managed to have an active social life.

We did not allow our children to take a car to school the first two years.  This allowed us to save on car insurance (call your agent to change your student’s status to part-time).  Believe me, they can manage without a car.  Once our kids decided to move off campus (we required at least two years in on-campus housing), they were required to work, and they had their own cars.

Studies and our own anecdotal experience have shown that students who have a “free ride” are more likely to drop out of school, are more likely to spend money cavalierly, and are less likely to appreciate their parents efforts in the long run.  Children who share the pain of paying bills with their parents or who bear the burden totally on their own are more likely to be reasonable in their spending and responsible in their overall actions.

After having children in high school for 15 straight years, our last high school graduation was in June 2011 (our second oldest is missing from this picture).

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