Thinking About College

guestCollege Prep, Transition, Transition to Adulthood


For high school students thinking about college, there are a number of considerations to keep in mind. If you are a senior, you are likely deciding where you will be applying and starting to work on your FAFSA form to make sure you get all the financial aid you need. By the time you read this post, your deadlines may be coming up quickly.

If you are a high school junior or younger, time is not as pressing an issue but you should be thinking ahead and taking some of the steps we outline below to put yourself in the best position to find a college that fits you well and that you can afford. For instance, if you are consider submitting an early decision application, you’ll want to start this process sooner than later!

There are a number of factors to take into consideration. While this list is far from all-inclusive, it can give you a sense of some of the considerations that are important in the college application process.

Your school counselor

Sometimes, the best resource for your college search is the one right in front of you – your high school counselor. You should already have met with your counselor to make sure you have the right number of credits for graduation and that your GPA, as calculated by your high school, is correct.

Your guidance counselor will also be able to make sure that you have taken the right courses for admission to colleges that interest you. Does your dream school require four years of foreign language? This issue can be of particular importance for students whose IEP excludes them from foreign language requirements. Of course, these conversations need to begin well before your senior year – usually when you first meet your counselor in ninth grade.

He or she also will be able to give you a sense of whether your choices give you a realistic chance for admission. Many counselors urge students to apply to several tiers of schools:

  • “reach” schools that you may really want to attend but where your credentials make admission uncertain,
  • “safety” schools that are very likely to admit students with your academic profile, and
  • a variety of schools in the middle of the pack that may work out for you.

Just keep in mind that many, many students find themselves at one of their “safety” schools and go on to have an amazing college career; they often can’t believe that they had not given their current school more serious consideration.

While every high school differs in the rigor of its courses, your standing in comparison to your high school classmates is something colleges will want to see.

Colleges that have previously admitted students from your high school and have found that they have done well may be more likely to consider candidates from your school. Your guidance counselor will have this information.

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If you don’t have a school counselor or aren’t able to get an appointment with your school counselor:

Many states and native nations have a higher education assistance branch or organization whose job is to assist in planning and funding higher education. Some of these organizations focus on providing financial support, many also offer a variety on online resources, as well as being available for individual consultation. Try searching “higher education assistance” and the name of your state or native nation in your online browser.

For instance, New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation offers a College Planning Calendar, which offers helpful guidance for mapping your journey to college, wherever you live in the U.S.

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Cost is often a significant factor in choosing a college.  It is never too soon for families to start conversations about how to pay for college.  Families have differing abilities and willingness to contribute to college costs, depending on considerations such as income, savings, and the number of children in the family.

Some students have started working part-time and summers to build their savings, while others have dedicated all their extra time to academics or sports.

There is no one answer as to how to manage the extraordinary cost of college, but as we note above, the financial aid process generally starts with the FAFSA form. It’s a complicated form and the rules for completing it can be confusing. We like the free, downloadable guide FAFSA: The How-To Guide for High School Students (And the Adults Who Help Them), available in ten languages and especially helpful for students who are the first in their families to go to college.

The FAFSA folks (Federal Student Aid, an office of the U.S. Department of Education) also offer a series of planning checklists.

Community colleges and state colleges and universities generally provide a more affordable alternative than private colleges, although some selective private colleges can be less expensive than state or city schools; these private colleges have made the decision to cover all costs for many of their students. For instance, Dartmouth College has committed to covering tuition costs for all accepted students.

As mentioned above, many states and native nations have a higher education assistance branch or organization whose job is to assist in funding higher education. Try searching “higher education assistance” and the name of your state or native nation in your online browser.

Try this interactive game from Next Gen Personal Finance to get a feel for the realities and considerations of paying for college: Payback

The Hechinger Report’s Tuition Tracker is an interactive tool designed to show “the relationship between published tuition and the actual costs of attending college.”

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You’ll want to pay particular attention to timing.

  • Work with your guidance counselor and parents to decide when – or if – to take the SAT/ACT exams. A website that may be helpful is Fairtest, which is a nonprofit organization that provides lists of colleges that do not require students to submit SAT/ACT scores. The trend of eliminating these high stakes exams from admission decisions accelerated during the pandemic and does not seem to be stopping. Note that use of AP exams to provide credit or to inform placement decisions continues, as does using or SAT subject tests for placement. Regardless of what the Fairtest site may state, always check directly with the college for information on what kinds of admission/placement exams, if any, they require.

  • Carefully determine what the deadlines are for any early decision/early action programs to which you may be applying (and make sure you thoroughly understand the commitments you may be making when you submit such an application). In general, early decision/early action applications require you to make a binding commitment before you know the extent of financial aid you may be getting. Since many students want the opportunity to compare financial aid packages, this may mean you do not decide to apply early.
  • Check the FAFSA deadline if you will be submitting a FAFSA form.
  • And don’t forget to leave lots of time for teachers and others to write your recommendations and get them in by deadlines

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Some students are comfortable venturing far from home to attend college. They may be drawn to a particular school or program in a distant state, or they may have traveled extensively during their high school years and don’t think of distance as a problem. Other students will prefer to stay closer to home or even attend college while living at home. There are economic and social reasons for making the choice to stay close to home. Students with disabilities may want to be close to the resources they need: parents, doctors, therapists. One family we have worked with, whose student had health issues, had a “three hour rule”; their student could apply to any school where they could reach them within a three-hour car ride in case of an emergency. There is no “right” decision about distance, but like all aspects of the college planning process, it is best made as part of a family conversation.

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While many large colleges and universities have an extensive selection of courses and majors, most schools have some areas in which they excel and others where the course options may be a bit thin.

Think about what you love, what you enjoyed in high school, and where you think you would like to be a few years after you graduate. No one should expect to stick with the same interests from high school through adulthood but giving some thought to the process may keep you from deciding you want to study poetry when you have applied to a college with strengths in finance and accounting and only a fair English department.

Remember, too, that college is a time to explore and taking a wide array of courses in your first year or two may help you uncover a passion or affinity that you had never considered.

Many colleges and community colleges offer guidance for choosing your major. For instance, South Puget Sound Community College offers Career Coach, a free online tool for “exploring careers and academic pathways based on your interests.”

 LSU Olinde’s Career Center’s “Choosing Your Major Resource Guide” includes information and questions to guide your “Career Decision Making Process”,  a Skills & Values Worksheet, tips for choosing a major (page 13) and additional career information resources.

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Colleges range in size from those that may be smaller than your high school, to massive universities with thousands of students. Larger schools may provide a wider range of courses and majors but may lack the personalized contact with professors and can have much larger classes. Smaller schools can often give students opportunities for more contact with their instructors and allow them to know most of the students in their year. It’s a very personalized decision and one that visiting a variety of schools can help you make.

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As with a possible major, if you plan to play a sport – or several sports – during college, you will want to explore the options that various colleges provide. While some students play at the elite level in high school and may be recruited by coaches who have scholarship slots available, other students just want to enjoy a sport that has always brought them pleasure. You don’t need to be a college varsity athlete. Club level or intramural teams can provide opportunities for you to stay or become involved with a sport you enjoy.

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Special Needs

If you have had an IEP or a Section 504 Plan in high school, you may need to work with the Office of Disability Services at your college to obtain the accommodations you have used to be successful. Keep in mind that there is no IEP in college; colleges must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) which requires them to provide accommodations but not modifications of the curriculum or specialized learning services. That doesn’t mean that you can’t find a program that goes beyond the ADA requirements. You should begin by reviewing your IEP or 504 Plan with your parents and/or teachers and thinking about what supports and accommodations you have been getting in high school that you will need to succeed in college.

You should explore the college website’s section on Services for Students with Disabilities and find out what kind of services they offer. Only accommodations? Workshops? Or one-on-one support for students who need it?

One resource, which by no means is an exhaustive list, is the K&W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Differences, published by the Princeton Review. In addition to descriptions of colleges, there are excellent explanations of the varying levels of support that colleges offer. Make sure that you get the most recent edition.

Note that colleges won’t discuss specific supports they may offer you until you have been admitted. They don’t want to create the impression that admission decisions are related to the services a student may need. But you can usually get a good sense of what is generally available.

Note that colleges will require documentation of your disability, usually a current evaluation. Your IEP or 504 Plan will generally not be enough. An excellent resource to help you plan for your transition process is the National Center for Learning Disabilities’ Planning Your Future: A Guide to Transition..

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How to Visit

Most colleges have an enormous amount of information on their websites, but there is nothing that lets you get a feel for a college’s “vibe” like visiting the campus. This may not be feasible for all students or for schools that are a significant distance from your home (see #2, above), but even visiting a couple of the schools you are considering can be helpful. While it is always best to try to visit campuses while classes are in session, this is often not possible. While the “to do” list below is not complete, it can help you get started with your own college visits:

  • Make sure to call ahead to the admissions office to see if tours are available at the time you plan to visit.
  • Take the time to have a meal in the college cafeteria — checking out both the food and ambiance.
  • Go to an information session (check ahead to see when these are scheduled) to learn what the college requires for admission — and what it offers that will appeal to you.
  • Students should keep a log of the schools they visit, noting their observations and impressions. Parents may want to do this too, so that later, when the family sits down to discuss applications, everyone can remember what they thought of a particular campus.

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Using websites and guides

As we mentioned above, college websites are filled with information, but it is important to keep in mind that they are designed to show a college in its best light.

Using unaffiliated books and guides can sometimes give a different perspective on issues that are important to you. There are countless books and guides with a wide array of statistics and narrative reviews of colleges.

Two useful ones are the Fiske Guide, and The Princeton Review’s The Best 388 Colleges (though you should always keep in mind that “best” doesn’t mean best for you).

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Susan Yellin, Esq., Director of Advocacy and Transition Services, The Yellin Center for Mind, Brain, and Education with Kim Carter, Q.E.D. Foundation