Every year around this time, I find myself excited, with hope and anticipation of having the best school year ever. For students and educators, September more than January is the start of the new year. As a college and career counselor, I am greeted each new year with a bombardment of questions from anxious high school seniors who are overwhelmed by the college admission process.
Senior year is a year of big decisions, from the amount of community service a student should perform to which standardized test to take. I hope to make the process a little less stressful and much easier to navigate by sharing my advice here regularly.
To help our college-bound children get a leg up on the admissions process, I'm sharing three tips for high school seniors and their parents as they enter their final year before college.
Start searching for scholarships now
You can never have enough scholarship money. The best time to focus on scholarships is before the pressure is on. Senior year is a busy one, with projects, trips, and long-awaited events like prom and graduation. Start now by helping your child collect scholarship criteria, deadlines, and materials. Even if your initial search brings up last year's information, you can anticipate that the essay prompts and deadline will be similar for this school year.
To make sure you optimize your time and sanity, keep scholarship information in digital form (try a Word or Google document). Plug information into an online calendar and have it send your child alerts for deadlines. There are online services that help with scholarship collection as well. Try FastWeb or a new smartphone app from a Philadelphia-based company called Scholly to focus your scholarship search.
Take the test early
Unless your child has scored a perfect, or near-perfect, score on the SAT or ACT test, it never hurts to try again. Seniors won't have much time to take the test and receive their scores before college application season is in full swing. This makes it even more important to secure a seat for your child in the October or December test. Registration closes weeks before the actual test day, so don’t delay. Check out the official sites for each test – CollegeBoard.org (for the SAT) and ACTstudent.org -- to find the nearest test dates. Also, a little prep can go a long way. Philadelphia students can enroll in free test-prep classes through the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Get quality letters of recommendation
A lot of students will wait until the start of senior year and barrage their current teachers for letters of recommendations. Teachers will oblige, but they might not have enough substance to write a strong letter of recommendation.
A better method is to ask teachers, coaches, and mentors who have taught them or worked with them earlier in their high school career. Preferably, find folks who can speak to the child’s academic skills and character. Even if your child didn't receive an A in their class, the teacher may be able to highlight qualities that newer teachers will miss.
To help adults create full and illustrative letters of recommendation, ask them to expound upon one or more of the following prompts:
• Please describe a time the child handled a challenging situation with tact and poise.
• What three characteristics does the child have that makes him or her an ideal college student?
• Please share a moment when the child behaved selflessly, courageously, or with great distinguishing character.
When it comes to college preparation, we always wish we had more time. Get started today and keep the regrets away.
Parents, do you have a college prep question? Email me your questions.
Melissa A. Rowe, M.Ed., is founder of Capture Greatness! – A Scholarship Writing & College Coaching Initiative. As a writer, youth advocate, and educator, she teaches students how to use the power of their personal stories to earn scholarships and get to college.