So You Want To Go To College: Planning ahead smoothes road after high school

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Published: October 30,2009

Many students don’t begin planning for college until their junior or senior year in high school. But it’s great to think ahead, especially if applying to selective colleges and universities or competing for top scholarships. 

Some people might avoid taking Advanced Placement or honors classes with an idea of keeping their GPA high. But that isn’t a good idea, said Ann Hendricks, director of college planning for Education Services Foundation (ESF), Mississippi’s not-for-profit company helping students plan and pay for college.  

“Students should take the most rigorous curriculum rather than protecting their GPA with easy courses,” Hendricks said. “Selective colleges and universities won’t consider a student who has not taken AP/IB or honors courses if they are offered at the high school. It’s the very best way to be academically prepared for college.”

In their junior year, students should begin preparing for the ACT and/or SAT college entrance exams. Hendricks said taking a rigorous curriculum is the best preparation.

Next, do your homework researching colleges and universities, looking for the best fit.  

“While cost may play into the final decision, don’t let cost drive your college search,” Hendricks said. “ The only way to know if a college is a good fit is to make a campus visit.  Always visit when students are on campus, not during holidays.  A good campus visit may be part of the college’s formal visit program or it could be a private visit.  (Tailgating is NOT a campus visit!)  The visit should include a meeting with the college admission counselor, a campus tour including the residence hall, eating in the cafeteria, attending a class and visiting with students, faculty or staff in areas of interest.”

She also recommends students get involved in high school and community activities and taking advantage of enriching summer programs. 

“When looking at selective college admission or competitive scholarships, students need a strong resume,” Hendrick said. “Students can begin building their resume early in high school, adding and editing each year. Colleges look beyond the ACT and GPA for significant experiences. They aren’t simply looking for a resume packed with activities. Colleges want students who have a passion or strong interests in an area and like to see leadership skills and motivation through extracurricular activities.”

While it may be hard to pick a college, don’t wait too late to apply. Some colleges are accepting admission applications the summer after the 11th grade. 

“You may have multiple deadlines at each college for admissions, scholarship and financial aid, so make sure you are meeting the early priority deadlines for each,” Hendrick said. “Most students apply to three to five colleges and the best students apply to more.”

Make sure you are not only on track for high school graduation, but also meeting college admission requirements. The requirements are posted on www.mississippi.edu and are changing for the students graduating 2012 and beyond.

“Students should begin in the ninth grade taking the most rigorous curriculum,” Hendrick said. “The most selective colleges won’t have a specific required course of study, but they might recommend taking four years of high school mathematics, at least two laboratory sciences, four years of a language other than English and significant courses in writing, history and literature.”

Also, look into sources of scholarships and financial aid including outside scholarships, institutional scholarships or money from the college or university, state aid (www.mississippi.edu) and FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (www.fafsa.ed.gov).

Dana Larkin, parent advocacy director for Parents for Public Schools-Greater Jackson, said a student should complete and file his/her FAFSA as early as possible in January or February of their senior year.  

“Some financial aid is awarded by colleges on a first come, first served basis, so the earlier one applies the greater the likelihood they might be awarded one of those grants,” Larkin said.  “The Internet is a wonderful source of information detailing numerous scholarship and financial aid opportunities.  Seek information from your school counselor and encourage them to work for and with the student to find sources of money.”

  Larkin recommends saving for college should begin at a very early age and there are programs through the State of Mississippi that allow students to have their tuition prepaid at fixed rates or offer tax deductions for contributions made directly to the student’s account for college tuition and expenses. 

“Mississippi’s dual enrollment policy is also a great way to save money on college expenses since tuition at community colleges is usually much lower than four year colleges and universities,” she said. “Students can earn a semester or more of credits and save on their overall total expense for their degree.  Also, achieving a three, four or five on an AP exam, usually correlates to receiving three credits at a college or university.  Only paying the fee for taking the exam, that saves hundreds of dollars at the university level.” 

By BECKY GILLETTE I CONTRIBUTOR

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