Well, here we are in the midst of another holiday season, which means families will be spending more time together.  Normally such proximity is a good thing, but families being what they are when teens are involved; there always seem to be issues.  And one of the more daunting issues revolves around the dreaded college admissions process, which has resulted in more than few spoiled family dinner conversations.

With that as a backdrop, I thought I would offer a few suggestions to parents who may be at wits-end regarding a process that appears akin to climbing Mt. Everest when in fact it should be a gentle hike on a nature trail.

The college admissions process begins and ends with family discussions, and it should be a fun, exciting time in the life of the student and the student’s parents.  While this process should have begun when the student entered high school, i.e. what courses, what extra-curricular and sports activities, should a student work, etc., even if it didn’t, there’s no need to fret because there’s still plenty of time.

The first thing a family MUST do is to sit down and determine how much money will be available to the student, and how that money will be appropriated.  At the same time, the student must make an honest evaluation of his or her own record and be realistic as to meeting admission requirements.  Lastly, the family has to decide the issue of distance from home.

To quickly frame the topic then, the three most important considerations are: 1—cost (tuition, fees, room & board, living & travel expenses); 2—admissions; and 3—distance from home.  Keep in mind that the last thing a parent should ask a student is “What do you want to major in or what do you what to be when you grow up?”  Young people have not been exposed to enough of the world at that age and it is a most unfair question.

Next, students should send applications to “safe schools” first, i.e. schools that are sure to accept the student and are affordable to the family.  Why—because for the student who is putting everything on the line, being accepted by at least one college or university makes the entire process far less intimidating.

Also, if the student has a strong record of achievement he or she should be encouraged to apply to “stretch schools” i.e. schools were the student may not quite meet admission requirements or schools out of the family budget, but that could be worthwhile depending upon financial assistance (more on that later.)

Next, timetables must be established.  Applications should be mailed out by winter break at the latest, but preferably before that.  The “typical” turn around time for applications is five weeks.  So, if an application is mailed out (or transmitted on-line) in September, a student should hear back from the prospective college or university by the end of October.

However, parents and students should be mindful that the later in the school-year applications are sent out, the longer the turn-around time will be.

Applications fees range from $25 to $100 so families must also decide how many colleges the student will apply to; then after a student receives a positive response from an institution he or she should mail in a housing deposit to secure dormitory space.  Since housing deposits may be as high as several hundred dollars, a combined “application and housing deposit” budget of $750 is not unreasonable.

Keep in mind that a housing deposit does not bind the student to the college because the final decision to attend or not attend that particular institution isn’t required until late April or early May of the senior year, which by the way, is also an excellent time to visit the colleges where they have been accepted.

Students in need of financial assistance must apply using a standard FASFA form, which can be found in high school guidance offices or online at www.fafsa.ed.gov.  Applications must be submitted after January 1st of the year the student is applying.

These applications go to one of two national clearinghouses and are then forwarded to the financial office of the college that the student designated as recipient.  The college then determines the eligibility for financial assistance, which is based upon a formula predicated upon the age of the parents, family income, home ownership and savings.  If a student is eligible for financial assistance the school will offer a financial aid package, which normally includes a blend of grant, loan and work-study monies.

Important too, for financial aid purposes, college costs are not limited to just tuition—they also include room & board, books & fees, two round trips home per year and living expenses including “recreation.”

Hopefully the process will be fun—after all, it’s a once in a lifetime experience for each student.  But the key to a smooth running process is honesty.  The parents must be honest regarding how much financial support they will offer, and the student must be honest with in assessing his or her own record and how hard they will work once they begin their college career.

Best of luck and enjoy the adventure.