What Parents Need to Know About the College Admissions Timeline

The college admissions process puts a great deal of pressure on students, but parents can lighten the load by getting involved in some critical ways.

Here are five key things parents should know about the college admissions timeline, what it entails and how they can help.

Researching Schools

The sooner you and your teen start investigating colleges, the better. Even freshman year is not too soon. With thousands of appealing options to consider plus academic and nonacademic obligations that keep high schoolers busy, application deadlines can sneak up rather quickly.

However, you can get your student started with the daunting college hunt by helping to narrow down options.

[Read: When to Apply to College]

First, brainstorm together a list of “nonnegotiables,” “game changers” and “deal breakers” in terms of college characteristics. Then, start plugging those factors into an online search engine like BigFuture by the College Board, College Confidential, Niche or Unigo that will generate a list of schools that meet your criteria. The My Fit Custom College Ranking by U.S. News is another helpful tool.

Next, further research your options one by one and eliminate those that do not suit your family.

Visiting Campuses

Once you and your student have reduced your list to roughly 10 colleges of interest, it is time to start planning virtual or, preferably, in-person visits. Ideally, your family will begin with this step during the student’s sophomore year or no later than early junior year.

Visiting colleges far away makes planning especially essential, so these more costly and time-consuming trips may be best reserved for school breaks or summer recess.

Because college visits can get overwhelming, it is important to take detailed notes about your family’s observations, likes and dislikes about each school. These are points that could be quickly forgotten due to the excitement and constant come-and-go, especially if you tour multiple campuses within a short time.

Gathering Application Materials

To apply for college, students typically need to submit at least their official academic transcript from high school and two or three letters of recommendation. Additionally, they may be asked to send their SAT or ACT scores, a copy of their resume and one or more college essays.

Some of these documents can be gathered or sent rather quickly. For instance, SAT scores are generally transmitted to colleges within 10 days after student scores are released. However, because recommendations are written by third parties who may be busy with other to-dos, it takes longer to get this requirement taken care of.

[Read: How to Ask for a Letter of Recommendation for College.]

Be aware, too, that finalizing a resume, personal statement and supplemental essays could take several weeks or even months since the writing process consists of multiple phases: brainstorming, outlining, drafting, writing, editing and proofreading.

To avoid undue stress and missed deadlines, help your teen keep track of where he or she is in the material-gathering process. To this end, it may be best to maintain a spreadsheet with unofficial deadlines you set, as well as all your miscellaneous comments.

Applying for Scholarships

Competition for academic scholarships is stiff, and the applications usually require their own separate essays and/or letters of recommendation. As such, like most other aspects of the college admissions process, scholarships are best searched and applied for as early as possible. Try Scholarships.com or the U.S. News Scholarship Finder to start.

It is key to note that scholarship deadlines vary tremendously. Some schools fix their deadlines for February, while others start accepting applications in December and continue to accept them until well into the spring. May seems to be an especially popular month for scholarship deadlines.

[Read: A Complete Guide to the College Application Process.]

The bottom line for your family is to make no assumptions and instead find out and adhere to the rules of each college or organization that is offering money.

Completing the FAFSA

Students can also receive scholarships and grants based on financial need. However, to qualify for such aid from colleges, they typically must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly called the FAFSA.

Your teen will need your help with this step since the FAFSA asks about parental personal data, income, investments, assets and more, making it necessary to have tax and other documents on hand.

The FAFSA is due by the June 30 before the school year when students will need aid. Thus, you and your family have until the end of your child’s senior year to fulfill this requirement.

However, because you may need to pull answers from various official forms, you and your teen should aim to gather the required documents and start filling out the FAFSA well before the deadline. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be finalized in a single sitting, so it can be completed over a comfortable span of time.

Even if you don’t qualify for federal need-based financial aid, colleges and universities usually require the FAFSA to award institutional aid.

More from U.S. News

How to Find and Secure Scholarships for College

How Colleges Use SAT, ACT Results

8 Tips for Using Campus Visits to Choose a College

What Parents Need to Know About the College Admissions Timeline originally appeared on usnews.com

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