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What Parents Need to Know About College Applications

The refrain is common among parents of high school seniors: "I didn't need to do any of this when I applied to college!" Although much of the college application process is similar to the way it was 25 or more years ago, the information age has changed how much students and families know in general. And this often leads to confusion about the process and how much parents should take on.

As you prepare to help your child through the college application process, keep these tips in mind:

Know your financial parameters.

With information readily available online and in print, it should be fairly easy to determine which colleges your family can readily afford and which your student can attend only if all the financial aid pieces fall into place. Search for a college name and "net price calculator" to calculate an estimated cost of attendance for your child. Then, search for the Common Data Set for that college to determine how likely your student is to be admitted and to receive additional need- and merit-based aid.

If your child will not be able to afford a college with finances on hand, consider whether it makes sense to allow him or her to apply. Remember, your student will be able to only borrow so much in federal student loans. If your student needs to borrow more than that amount, he or she will likely depend on you to become a cosigner or to take on additional debt.

Help develop a list.

Deciding which colleges to apply to can be overwhelming for a student. Your student will need to weigh location, distance, size, academic offerings, cost, selectivity and other factors. You can help with research and campus visits.

In addition, encourage your student to place the schools he or she is considering into categories: those that your student should be automatically admitted to based on his or her qualifications and that your family can afford; those that your student should be able to get into and is within your budget, with or without financial or merit aid; and those that your student has a lesser chance of being admitted to but would like to attend if given the opportunity. This list will help you and your student focus your efforts.

Set the timetable.

Your student may be balancing school, extracurricular activities, a job and other commitments. You can help by setting a calendar of deadlines that fits within your child's schedule. Will it make sense for your student to get a jump on college essays and applications early on or wait until later in the fall? Which applications need to be completed first?

Remember to include plenty of time for your student to complete essays, short answer responses and other requirements. It can be difficult for students to learn how to talk about their accomplishments without sounding forced or too humble.

Also allow your student time to regroup and recheck before hitting the submit button on an application. After completing an application, allow it to sit for a day or two and then help your child look at it with fresh eyes for errors or omissions. Consider whether optional fields should be filled in or explanations expanded.

Choose your seat on the bus.

Your student should be in the driver's seat of the college application bus, but you can choose to sit in the second row or at the back of the bus, depending on how much initiative your child has and how much support you need to provide. Your role is to be an adviser and sounding board, so make yourself available without pushing.

Although your student should be the one to initiate contact with admissions offices, recommenders and the school counseling office, be prepared to offer advice or action as needed.

Be prepared for fees.

The fees associated with the application process can add up quickly. You may find that your family will need to pay fees to send test scores, obtain official transcripts, submit college applications and more. Watch for fee waivers from colleges on your student's list (often received by email after the student expresses interest in the college at a visit, through email or online forms) and take advantage of free score sends on the ACT and SAT. You may also qualify for fee waivers based on your financial circumstances. Some schools offer no-fee applications but you may still need to pay to send scores or transcripts.

Remain calm and carry on with daily life.

Applying to colleges is stressful for students and parents. Come up with a way to deal with the pressure that works for your family. Some parents schedule a weekly update to check on progress and limit nagging. Others create shared online or paper documents to keep track without college talk dominating every conversation. You may wish to set aside college-discussion-free days or weekends to give everyone a break. Another strategy is to complete the application now for one college your student likes and where admission is likely. One early acceptance in hand can ease pressure and allow your family to take on other applications with a refreshed attitude.

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