10 Easy Steps to Start Your College Plan!
Time and time again we are asked to give families a “how to” book for preparing for college. Well we thought we’d do just that! Below is a quick, 10-step planning process for you to begin your college plans.
1.) You need a destination to create a map.
Do you ever get on the freeway to drive to an unknown destination? Do you get in your car and say, “I’m going to start driving, and I am sure I’ll end up where I need to be today,”? I’m going to say, probably not. You typically start a journey with an end goal in mind. College is the same thing. If you don’t know where you’re going then you’re not going to use college the right way. You may waste time and end up at a less appealing destination.
To start your path it is vital that you examine what your life looks like after college. What do you want to do? Where do you want to live? What kind of car do you drive? What’s your life really like? This is important. Once you know where you want to be (i.e. a college with a great writing program that is near L.A.) you can figure out how to get there.
2.) What tools do I need?
Now that you have your destination you must research what you need to get there, academically speaking. Do you need a Bachelor’s degree? Do you need a graduate level degree? What type of specialization do you need? Do I need a specific major? College allows us to get degrees, but different degrees mean different things. You need to know what will be the best tool to get your job done.
3.) What matters most: College Admissions or College Affordability?
- Admissions: For some, getting into a prestigious school outweighs the price tag of that education. For these people they are more concerned with getting accepted to a “dream school” than the bill that will come later. If you fall into this group then your priority is strictly finding the right, elite schools.
- Affordability: For some, getting a good deal on college matters most. For these people they have limits. They’d rather attend a college that will ensure they avoid debt. If you fall into this group than your priority is strictly cost.
- Both: For some, they want a bit of both. These people are willing to pay a bit more than they can afford for a “dream school,” but they have their limits. They hope to combine best fit schools with affordable schools, but they’ll pay more for the right school.
Where do you fall? Know what matters to you when picking the right colleges. Some schools will be more affordable, based on their history of giving financial aid.
4.) Create Your College List.
Now that you have your map, your tools, and your values in line, you can start the creative process! You can begin construction on your college list.
Things to consider when picking colleges:
- Geographic location- Where are you willing (and happy) to live for 4-5 years of your life? Any limitations?
- Grades and Test Scores- How are your grades/ SAT & ACT scores? How would you fare against the recently admitted college class or your dream schools? Do you need to prep?
- Social fit- What do you enjoy doing for fun? With what type of people do you enjoy spending your time? Does this school offer you a fit?
- Program of Study- Does your college have the major you want to study? How is it ranked for that program?
- Financial Aid- Does the school fit in your budget? If not, does it have a historically generous financial aid program?
5.) Research Deadlines, Applications, and Cost
This step requires that you get organized. Colleges all have different requirements, deadlines, costs, etc. You’ll want to start making a system to keep track of everything. We recommend using a filing system (one folder per college) that houses important documents; however, you can also use Excel or online tools. You’ll also want to create a master calendar to put all due dates on.
You’ll need to find out:
- College Deadlines
- Applications Needed
- Number of Letters of Recommendation Required
- Testing Requirements (any additional tests?)
- Core Coursework Pre-reqs
6.) Create Your Timelines and Start Your Checklist.
Once you’ve completed your research on your dream colleges, you can create a detailed timeline. This is very important! If you don’t prepare a schedule then you may risk getting down to the wire on due dates and not being able to request transcripts, request letters of recommendation, complete applications, write essays, create supplemental essays, etc. You must give yourself plenty of time to get ready. A timeline will keep you on track!
The time has come. You are organized, you have finished your checklist, and you are ready. Apply! Submit your applications well in advance of their due dates.
8.) Submit Your Financial Aid Forms
Don’t fret about your family having too much money or your student having insufficient grades—financial aid is for everyone. Just take the time to submit, and you’ll get somewhere.
We recommend submitting the FAFSA and the CSS Profile no later than February 1st. You can file with estimates on your taxes, as you may not be able to file taxes by February 1st. You’ll be able to go in and update your form once you complete your taxes.
Warning: In general, college admissions applications are due before financial aid forms; however, be careful! Some colleges require separate institutional documents to be considered for school-based scholarships. These documents can be due as early as November 1st (well before the regular deadline for admission at most schools). Be prepared!
9.) Analyze Your Awards
You’ve done it! You’ve completed your applications and your financial aid forms. Now… breathe. Colleges will be getting in touch with your results between March 1 and April 15.
Once you know where you got in and how much money you’ll be getting in the form of aid, analyze what is best for your family. Take your Expected Family Contribution (EFC- based on FAFSA submission) and see how much need-based aid you’ve been offered. Check to see if you received any merit-based awards or any other school-based offers. Next, check to ensure that your financial aid awards are guaranteed for all 4 years of college and if there are any stipulations.
Once you have an understanding of how your acceptances and financial aid awards compare, make your decision. Let your college of choice know you want to attend by May 1 (to secure housing)!
10.) Appeals and Loans
Need to revisit your awards? If you didn’t get the financial aid award you need to attend your first choice school, then consider appealing. You can write the Director of Financial Aid explaining why you need more money (family has debt that was not represented on financial aid forms, medical bills, death in family, job loss, extended family as dependents, better offer at competing college, etc.). Know that an appeal could upset your original financial aid award, as the college may take a closer look at your financial situation. If you do appeal then you need to do so for the right reasons.
You may need to consider taking out loans to meet your unmet need at colleges. We recommend applying for federal loans before looking to private loan options.
You’ve done it. You’ve read exactly what you’ll need to do to get started on a college planning path.
Feeling overwhelmed? We understand. This is a lot of work to do alone! If you want support and advise on how to go about this process without making mistakes, call us. We’re happy to schedule a free, one-hour college planning analysis to see if you’d be a good fit for our program.
(661) 295-9946 (Valencia); (805) 279-4569 (Westlake Village); (818) 201-4847 (Encino)