As a parent, you have finally figured this high school thing out. You have mastered Alma and Google Classroom, you have your son or daughter’s advisor added to your “Favorites” in your contacts, you have been to so many conferences that you could now lead them. You are “killing it” at being the parent of a high schooler at Noble Academy (an independent school that focuses on educating students diagnosed with ADHD and learning differences.) And just as you are out for a Sunday drive, on High School Lane, you get sideswiped by a big ol’ 18-wheeler called...COLLEGE. You reach back 20+ years to dust off your memories of preparing for college only to find that EVERYTHING - HAS - CHANGED. You have a 1,000 questions, none of which you have answers to. You Google “how to get my kid into college” and the results only provide you with more questions than answers. And let’s not even talk about the special considerations your child may need due to his/her ADHD and/or learning differences! Panic sets in!
But wait! There is a way to plan for and apply to college without losing your mind. Here are some great resources that will certainly make it less painful.
Encourage reflection & exploration
I think interest inventories and career aptitude tests are great--they often provide a starting place for students that may not have given college and career much thought. And for some, they really help solidify goals they may have already started working toward. However, I am not an advocate of pressuring a kid to decide what he/she wants to spend most of his/her adult life doing at the ripe old age of 16. Developmentally, it makes much more sense for high school-age students to spend time reflecting on the things, people, and experiences in their lives that have really given them joy. As parents and educators, it’s important to engage with them about what they like and don’t like, what they believe they are good at, which people matter to them most and why, and what experiences, big or small, have been most meaningful to them so far.
Some teens may not be able to come up with a long list of meaningful experiences. That may mean it’s time to encourage some activities that allow them to experience life outside their bubbles. That might look like finding a non-profit to volunteer with regularly, joining a topical club, taking an online or face-to-face class (that’s not a part of their academic schedule), participating in a specialized camp, or shadowing someone in an interesting career. The common denominator in all of these things should be that there is at least a small spark of interest so that an investment of time and effort may eventually grow that flame into a passion.
2. Talk to the experts
When I was a school counselor I knew a lot of general information about a lot of things. It was my job to be a resource in the areas of adolescent social and emotional behavior, academics, and career development. But when it came down to specifically what GPA, SAT score, and extracurricular activities a student needed to get a departmental scholarship at one of the 100+ colleges and universities in NC, I couldn’t give a confident answer. But, what I could do was make a referral to the faculty member who headed up departmental grants in the Communications Department at Appalachian State University. From admissions requirements, fields of study, student life or athletics, to housing, grants and loans, or on-campus personal support, there is so much great information to be gleaned from the experts in those areas. Whether it’s establishing an email relationship with an admissions counselor at a small private college or reaching out to a friend who is in a career that your son or daughter finds interesting, placing yourself in the company of folks who can answer your specific questions is wise advice. If you are not sure where to begin in that process, your student’s high school counselor is a great starting point!
3. Visit prospective campuses and visit CFNC.org
There is just nothing like walking around on a college campus--visiting a dorm room, eating in a cafeteria, attending a sporting event, meeting with a professor--that can provide the same experience. Sure, some students set foot on campus and they “just know,” but for most, a thorough visit is one more piece of the puzzle (though I would argue a really important piece) that helps a student and his family know if the school is the best fit. College visits are an investment of time, money, and effort, but I believe the payoff is well worth it. Ideally, families might begin visiting campuses in your high schooler's sophomore or junior year in hopes that the list is much more narrowed by the time 12th grade. Even if your student visits a school with his class, I would still highly recommend a family visit as well. Though it may not always be possible, I encourage families to prioritize meetings with four people: 1. An admissions counselor; 2. A financial aid counselor; 3. A representative from the Office of Accessibility (or sometimes called the Office of Disability Services); and 4. A professor in the department(s) in which your student has interest (if applicable). This goes back to importance of talking to “the experts.” Just these four professionals can give you a wealth of information to be used when determining where to apply and, subsequently, where to attend!
In addition to these real-life visits, spending some time visiting schools virtually can also be really helpful. I believe the College Foundation of North Carolina (CFNC.org) to be the best comprehensive resource when it comes to planning for college (specifically schools in NC but there is a lot of information appropriate for students attending college out-of-state as well.) This site has student and parent-specific tools that allow extensive exploration of college and career and how those two intersect. I highly recommend spending time on this site individually as well as with your son or daughter as a first step to this whole process. If you need assistance with this “one-stop-shopping” site, talk to your school counselor or you can correspond with a CFNC representative via phone or email.
You are not alone as you navigate this unfamiliar territory. Engage in dialog with your child, communicate with school staff who know your child and can provide guidance in the post-secondary process, and connect with people who can give specific advice to you and your son or daughter. Pretty soon you will find yourself back on that leisurely drive...this time on College Ave.