February is the month in which high school students start to receive notice about early acceptance to colleges.
Most students who are planning to attend college know they need to begin the application process during the first part of their senior year, but planning for college really starts much earlier.
Starting in middle school, counselors remind students each year of the importance of a strong grade-point average, solid ACT or SAT scores and a transcript that contains challenging and rigorous coursework.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of the college-application process for a student is that they apply in the fall, yet they do not receive a decision or find out about the final price tag until the spring. Our world is immediate and fast-paced. Teenagers want immediate answers.
Other than waiting for the acceptance letter, what should students be doing in the meantime, and how has this changed over the years?
After completing college applications and sending test scores, the next step is filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA. For the federal government to offer need-based aid and for colleges to award scholarships, the FAFSA must be completed.
After the FAFSA is complete, it again becomes a waiting game for families. Students need to make sure they are checking their email and college accounts. Emails can be sent to students to alert them something is missing or needs to be verified on their FAFSA applications. Colleges might ask students to set up a username and password. Students who forget to check their email or who do not log into their college accounts might not be aware they were accepted or awarded a scholarship until months later.
In addition to checking email and logging into accounts, students should be applying for scholarships. A variety of search engines online can help students find scholarships, but we add all scholarships to the district's Naviance Family Connection account.
Seniors are reminded to check Naviance, as scholarship opportunities are added throughout the school year. Most local scholarships are not added until February, March or even April. Parents also can log into Naviance Family Connection and can see the scholarships to remind their children of upcoming deadlines.
The final step in the process is the Student Aid Report, which is sent to students from each college they listed on the FAFSA. When all of the SARs are received, students can then compare SARs to help make an informed decision on which college to attend.
Most people do not realize the some of the numbers on the SAR are negotiable. Students can call the financial-aid office and/or their admissions representative to ask for more money. Nothing is wrong with placing a phone call to the financial-aid office and/or to the admission representative, so our advice always is to call.
The college-application process might seem like the opposite of how we are used to doing business. We are used to walking into a store and quickly determining whether items are on sale. If we like an item and the price, we make a purchase. With colleges, students apply without knowing the final price.
A lot of planning and waiting is necessary, and patience and persistence are the key to success.
Christa Russell is a counselor at Central Crossing High School in the South-Western City School District.