January is a time for resolutions and reorganization. If you're the parent of a high school freshman or sophomore, but particularly if you're the parent of a junior, now is the time to understand and start implementing the college timeline.
There is no need to be intimidated. With proper planning and execution, you'll have plenty of time to research and visit colleges and complete the applications.
If you anticipate that your child will be applying to any of the more selective colleges and universities, the earlier you initiate the process, the better.
College preparation in high school varies widely. Private schools tend to start earlier and offer families much more direct contact. According to research conducted by the Independent Educational Consultants Association (www.iecaonline.com), public school students in the United States receive an average of 38 minutes of personal college counseling with their guidance counselor over four years, and six out of 10 students reported receiving no college counseling whatsoever. Nationally, the current student-to-counselor ratio is 476-to-1 and in California it's 1,016-to-1 (which might explain the burgeoning college consultant market).
The two most important factors for any college application are the rigor of a student's coursework (i.e., how competitive the classes are) and a student's performance in the classes chosen.
This means that course selection for all four years is critical, especially if a student has lofty goals of attending a selective college or university. It means that families need to plan and prioritize course selection and try to determine which courses a student will take each year. You'll need to understand the point values in your school system for different courses: standard college prep, honors, AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (International Baccalaureate). Ask your guidance counselor about doubling up in foreign language, math or science courses so that your student is prepared to take the most advanced courses that interest them.
It is also important to check on course expectations at each of the colleges on your list. In the Princeton Review's "The Best 385 Colleges," this information is published on the right side of every college description, and it is frequently a surprise to many families.
It's not shocking that the more selective schools have more rigid requirements. As an example, Emory, Colgate, Rice, Bucknell, Davidson and most of the Ivy League schools recommend four years of (the same) foreign language. That means even if you don't like Spanish 3 as a junior, you will still probably need to enroll in Spanish 4 as a senior if those schools are on your list. Look closely, because some colleges, like the University of South Carolina, have particular requirements such as a "Visual/Performing Arts" class. That means it must be on the transcript, so you can take it in your senior year.
Lee Shulman Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte, N.C. Visit her website College Admissions Strategies.
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