What Parents Should Ask High School Counselors

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Tips for helping high school students get ready for college

Between baseball practices and play rehearsals, it can be hard to find time to talk to your kids about college much less chat with their high school counselor. But with the number of applications to college setting records every year, it's more important than ever. So we asked a few counselors from different types of schools across the country some of the questions they get asked most often. And because they also are parents of kids that have gone off to college, our three counselors have an extra-sharp focus on what you should be discussing in your next appointment in the guidance office.

Jim Durgin is a member of the American School Counselor Association, a volunteer for College Summit, and a counselor in the Denver public school system since 1990. Working in a high school with close to 1,500 students, he juggles the needs of students ranging from the wealthiest to the poorest in the area. With a daughter who recently navigated the college application process herself, Durgin offers these questions for parents and students:

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When should I start planning for college? What's the timeframe?

Applying for schools and applying for scholarships are two distinct periods. A savvy counselor is going to pay attention to the family ethos and dynamics. As a general rule, spring semester of junior year is a great time to be looking at types of schools and types of colleges. For the students, they should ask themselves: Which school is a good fit for me?

How important is it to have a reach school, a target school, and a safety or backup school?

I tend to downplay these questions, but I hear them often. My goal is that the student applies to schools that they will be happy at. Not too many students want to go to a "backup school," and if they have that perception, it's like they've already failed. So I counsel parents and students around that—let's get as good a picture as possible of your student and let's research schools that will fit her or him and then apply that way. The "reach" idea might apply to someone who's finally turning themselves on academically in their junior year, but I hate to see students in the third quarter of [their high school] class applying to schools where they're going to be in the bottom 10th. Bottom line is the more research a student does about herself and the types of schools that are out there, the more valuable each application is.

How do I keep my student motivated? On task and on time?

This is hard for many parents. By and large, students tend to want to do things at the last minute. I think it's fine to set up the high school counselor as the bad cop, with deadlines and paperwork, but that is only appropriate if the parent can work that out with the counselor. Senior year is so stressful, and everybody is on edge about the student making it to college that you don't need one more issue of deadlines getting in the way. Keeping your relationship supportive but matter of fact helps students gain a sense of responsibility and completion of the process, and in turn the parents feel good. It's a good way to help students practice being on their own.

How do I pay for all this?

It's a three-step process: Work on the type of school first, apply to those that are [academically] appropriate second, and then look at money. Money should be the last concern, because upfront, families simply won't know the bottom line cost, and it's worth it to your student to find that out. That is a time to talk frankly about finances and the limits of parents' resources. It's not fair for a parent to say, "We're not going to apply there, because we can't afford it" when they haven't filled out FAFSA[the federal financial aid form], haven't researched scholarships online, or used working websites to see what is available out there. A combination of those things can whittle down the cost, and this is a lifelong investment.

Karen Walbridge is the interim director of college advising for the Hill School, a college preparatory and boarding school 45 miles outside Philadelphia. While kids come to the Hill from around the world, many are aspiring local students from nearby districts. Walbridge is a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling and mother of two college grads.

When should we start visiting schools?

We recommend that students begin visiting no earlier than their junior year. Colleges frankly aren't prepared to accommodate students who are earlier than their junior years. Their presentations are geared for juniors who are beginning to look at schools. In the spring of junior year, we advise students to do a blast of schools to get a sense for the type of school they're looking for. It's a matter of calling up the admissions office—far in advance—especially for summer visits. Go to the website to arrange a tour, and remember to write thank-you notes or follow-up questions.

What forms do I need to have ready for my student to start the financial aid process?

That's a piece that parents really have to fill out. You can't file FAFSA until after January 1 of the student's senior year, so it varies. I try to tell the parents to be as upfront with the children as possible. Everyone should be aware of what they can afford. As for forms, in most cases you will need your tax information.

How involved should parents be?

Stay in the background, support [the student], but don't do the work for them. It is a time of angst for the child and for the parent. It's important to keep in touch with the college advising or guidance office. This is a process your child needs to do on his or her own, and making calls to colleges for these visits is part of that process. Colleges document who is making the phone calls and watch how many times you're calling, parents. It's beginning stages of letting-go.

Should I tell schools about my child's learning disability?

Yes—you can disclose it to a school during the application process and ask what types of resources are available. The other question is, should the student disclose it in his or her essay? I think it's a good thing for both the student and the school, especially so that the school feels prepared to deal with that student when he or she gets to campus. Additionally, the student might have learned something unique from the situation.

Director of college counseling for the California Academy of Mathematics and Science, Barry Baker begins working with students as early as ninth grade. Of the 610 students at the regional magnet school, 95 percent go on to four-year college institutions, and the rest attend two-year community colleges. CAMS, just 13 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, enrolls students with a desire to study in the disciplines of math and science: Eighty-five percent are students of color, with almost half enrolled in the federal lunch program. Baker, a magnet high school counselor for 18 years, offers these questions for parents:

What should my child be doing now? Ninth, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade?

There are two important ninth- and 10th-grade skills students should learn: They need to get good grades and learn how to study. Colleges look for a proven track record in college-prep classes. For the long term, schools want to see continuity with good grades but also well-rounded students. A balance between academics and something outside the classroom is important. Students should focus on two to three activities. If they join 10 clubs, that just isn't going to work. Progressive leadership and developing a long-term commitment are preferred, so that by the time students are in 12th grade, they've reached the highest leadership position in that activity. Whether it's president of a club or captain of a sports team, it's about balance and quality versus quantity.

What resources for college admissions does the school provide for students?

This leads to questions like—Does the school have personnel with experience? Is there one person assigned to help with the college process? Is there a program to move students on to college? A set curriculum to be covered? At CAMS, all of the 11th graders take a college-planning course. They put together a college-planning notebook including campus reports, articles, and a list of dream, target, and safety schools. What's great is that parents are required to sign off on their student's notebook. And during the school year, students use college-planning software to post test scores, GPAs, and research colleges of interest, which can send E-mail alerts to both students and parents about application deadlines and college-visit reminders.

What resources are there for parents?

Many schools host parents' nights or workshops about the college application process. I host a three-hour Saturday event for parents every October. Parents of ninth through 11th graders often come back every year because they hear something different each time. Each grade they are in a different spot in the college process, so it helps to get support from school and other parents. A financial aid night for the senior parents helps complete that process.

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