College Planning 101: A Guide for High School Seniors and Their Parents

College Planing 101Spring is an exciting time for high school seniors. With the stress of college applications behind them and their final semester of school underway, the light at the end of a long tunnel is finally in sight. However, as college acceptance letters start to roll in, so does the reality of what comes next. Deciding where to go to college – or whether to go at all – can be nearly as stressful as the years it took to get to this stage in the first place. Then comes college planning – a process that gives students an inkling of just how much “adulting” lies ahead.

As a parent, you’re faced with equally daunting challenges. Not only do you need to help navigate the process of applying, accepting, and attending a school in a world that has most likely changed pretty dramatically since your own college days, but you’ve also got college costs to consider.

Fortunately, we live in a time where resources are plentiful and information is at our fingertips. With everything from online planning guides to apps that help to calculate college costs, getting from high school to college doesn’t have to be a painful process.

If you are a high school senior, or the parent of one, the following guide will help you to break down the steps needed to start this exciting new chapter in your life. Starting with college acceptance letters, we’ll help you take a look at what lies ahead and offer valuable resources for each step of the college planning process – from now until move-in day.

Collage Applications

Applying is, of course, the first step. Most parents and students begin taking college tours as early as junior year, giving them a good sense of which schools they would like to apply. Every school has it’s own requirements and application process, so be sure to talk to an admissions’ officer at the school or review application requirements online.

These days, many colleges (more than 800, in fact), have streamlined the college application by using the Common App. Common Application is a non-profit organization that offers a single college application accepted my multiple schools, meaning that students only need to fill out one basic application in order to apply to a number of schools. Keep in mind that some schools will still require unique essays or other special information, so don’t skip the fine print for each school! To learn more about the Common App and the essay process, try some of these resources:

Filling Out the Common App
Expert Tips on Standing Out on the Common App
Conquering the College Admissions Essay


College Acceptance

By early spring, many high school seniors will have already started receiving those fateful envelopes in the mail – or these days, possible in their email inbox. If you get accepted to one or more of your top choice school, then congratulations! The biggest hurdle is already behind you.

But for some, acceptance might still be a few steps away. If you’ve been waitlisted or deferred at the school of your choice, you still have some choices to make.

First things first, it’s important to understand the difference between being waitlisted versus being deferred.


Being waitlisted at a school is sort of like being put on stand-by for a flight. Colleges can only accept a set number of new students each year. While your application may not have made the first round of acceptances, if spots open up because accepted students chose another school, you’ll be a the top of the list to fill those openings.

What to do if you’ve been waitlisted:

Most colleges will give you the choice to be placed on a waitlist as opposed to doing it automatically for you. Be sure to read any information provided by the school carefully, as you may need to follow up with forms or other means of communication.

However, as disappointing as news of a waitlist decision may be, it may be helpful to reconsider your options. If the school you have been waitlisted for is highly competitive, you may not find our until August if you’ve gotten a spot. You might want to reconsider if that is the right school for you. Having a viable backup plan is important, which might even mean putting a deposit down for your second choice school – which might just turn out to be the places you were meant to be all along.


Deferrals typically occur when a student has applied for early decision or early action acceptance. A deferral usually just means that the student’s application will change to a regular decision application and you’ll still be in the running when normal admission reviews are underway.

What to do if you’ve been deferred: Again, a deferral can be disappointing, especially if you are set on going to a particular school. However, there are a few things you can do to improve your chances of acceptance:

  1. Call the admissions office (make sure the student calls, not the parent) and ask for more information about why the application was deferred. Be polite and inquisitive, not defensive or confrontational.
  2. Make sure you’ve sent all the information you can – updated grades, new scores if you choose to retake the ACT or SAT, any new letters of recommendation, etc. You can usually email this information along with a letter or explanation to the admissions office.
  3. Request an interview. Sometimes speaking with an admissions officer one-on-one can help you gain that extra edge.
  4. Don’t let senioritis or disappointment take over. Keep your grades and activities up throughout the year.

Of course, college isn’t for everyone. Perhaps you’re not sure that college is right for you, or maybe you weren’t accepted to your top school. Don’t worry, there are still options that will put you on a path to success. Here are a few things to consider:

Trade or tech school

Not all students find their bliss in an academic setting, but this does not diminish their potential, intelligence or chances of success in any way. Doing something more hands-on may be right for you. Consider local trade schools or apprentice and training programs available for everything from cosmetology to mechanics. Skilled trades are highly important and viable.

Take a gap year

Sometimes the stress of the whole process college planning is just too much. Consider taking a year off to work, take an internship, or travel. Often this added buffer between high school and college leaves students more mentally, physically, and emotionally prepared to make choices regarding their future.

Community College

With four-year college and university costs on the rise, not to mention more competitive acceptance standards, community college is a great choice for many. Not only will you be able to get many of your prerequisite classes out of the way, you can save on tuition, as well as room and board if you live at home, and increase your chances of being accepted to your top four-year institution later with a proven track record of success in higher education.


You’ve Been Accepted to College – Now What? 

While some students may have known where they wanted to attend college from the moment they entered kindergarten, others may be unsure of which school is right for them. And that’s ok. It’s perfectly normal to be unsure at this stage of the college planning, because after all, the college you choose will be instrumental in shaping the next four years of your life – and beyond. If you’ve been accepted to more than one school, here are some things you can do to help finalize your decision:

Revisit schools

If you’ve already done college tours, going back to your top choices – or the places you’ve been accepted – can help you see things in a new light. While your first visit may have just been a fact-finding mission, a second visit seen through the eyes a potential student can have a very different look and feel. Consider the overall vibe of the school, whether you can truly see yourself there, and what it might feel like to be a full-time student. If you have a particular degree in mind, you can even set up meetings with faculty, the guidance department, or other school administration to ask questions and get a better sense of the overall program.

Dig a little deeper

It’s one thing to get into college, but staying can be another issue entirely. Before making your final decision, learn a bit more about the school you’re considering. Find out graduation rates, learn more about campus life, find out about the departments in the areas of study you’re interested in, etc. Here are some online tools that can help:

College Navigator – run by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), this site provides information ranging from financials to campus security and everything in between.

Niche – read reviews by actual students, faculty, and alumnae for a first-hand look at your top schools.

College Board – find everything from test prep to videos from actual students. College Board provides useful filters to help you narrow down your information search and can even help you set goals for college.

College Confidential – this online forum provides real-time questions and answers from other students and parents just like you, as well as a college match feature and tons of useful articles and expert advice.

Cappex – look up virtually any school to find out statistics, scholarships, majors, and more. Cappex even provides quizzes to help match your personality to the right major.

Consider the costs

We’ll get into this a bit more later, but the cost of college is one of the most important factors in making a decision – for students and parents. Even if you have a college savings account, costs add up quickly and many students are faced with the need for student loans. As part of your college planning process, consider the costs versus benefits of different schools, then figure out which school is the best choice financially.

Take a look at the financial aid packages offered by your top choices and use tools like Compare Your Aid Awards to look at your offers side by side.

Likewise, consider costs like travel and in-state versus out-of-state tuition when making your final choice.

Make your final decision

Many schools require an official acceptance notice by May 1. Once you’ve decided which school is right for you, it’s important to follow that school’s instructions for accepting your spot. This most likely includes an acceptance letter, a deposit, an additional acceptance letter for financial aid (if needed), and any number of other items. Be sure to read the instructions carefully.

Finally, go ahead and send a polite thank you, but no thank you letter to the schools you are not choosing. This allows them to open spots up for other students on waitlists.


Now for the big question – how will you pay?

For students and parents alike, the thought of looming college tuition bills can be overwhelming. But the good news is that there is more than one way to pay for college.

Federal Student Aid

For most families, financial college planning begins with the FAFSA®, or Free Application for Federal Student Aid. To get started, simply visit FAFSA online and create your free account. You’ll need facts regarding income and previous tax returns so be sure to have that information handy.


We often associate scholarships with high academic performance and/or sports. However, even for “average” students, there are quite literally MILLIONS of dollars available to help pay for college. From local organizations like rotary clubs to local government organizations, scholarships are everywhere. To help you search, try some of these amazing scholarships finders and tools:

TFS (Tuition Funding Sources) Scholarships
Scholarship America
Quest Bridge
College Board – Scholarship Search

You can also search for specific scholarships based on academic interests, gender, ethnicity, and more. Just remember, there is a great deal of money hidden in plain sight, so while it may take a little extra searching and few more essays, scholarships can often be the deciding factor in whether or not college is affordable for a family or student. For additional advice and resources, be sure to check out Maryville University’s fantastic guide, How to Pay for College: A Comprehensive Guide for Students and Parents.

Local resources 

If you’re considering an in-state school, be sure to get local information. For Virginia, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) is a great place to start. SCHEV provides valuable information about everything from preparing and paying for college to the latest state legislation regarding higher education. Explore every college and university in Virginia to make sure you’re getting the financial aid and overall experience you’re looking for.

If you’re in another state or are considering an out-of-state school, find your State Department of Education here. This site will help you find out about student loans, grants, and local laws for all 50 states.

Students Loans and Personal Loans

Student loans are a reality of life for many students. Even if parents have saved, the rising costs associated with higher education have become too much for even a carefully created college fund. Once you’ve completed the FAFSA, applied for scholarships, and calculated your total expected costs, it’s time to see if you need to apply for student loans.

Try some of these online student loan calculators to help you figure out the numbers:

Wells Fargo

Parents may also want to talk to their bank or a trusted financial advisor for additional college planning advice. These experts can help you determine whether personal loans, federal student loans, Stafford Loans, or even a home equity loan is the best financial choice.


Don’t forget the hidden costs!

Outfitting a child for college can add up quickly – even before you make the first tuition payment. Planning and careful budgeting can help alleviate some of this financial burden.

If you’re living in a dorm, you’ll most likely have all of the furnishings you need provided for you. However, it’s important to know what is available in case you need to supplement with additional furnishings. Most dorms provide a bed, closet, and desk. But sometimes students choose to have loft to open up floor space and/or find they might need additional storage for clothes and personal items. Be sure to talk with your chosen school to find out what is provided, what is allowed, and what you might need to bring that you haven’t considered.

If you’re in an apartment, you’ll most likely need not only furniture, but other household goods and small appliances, dishes, pots and pans, bathroom linens and supplies, and much more.

It’s never too early to start making lists of items you’ll need – and it’s definitely never too early to start collecting them. Take advantage of post-holiday and summer sales to stock up on everything from linens to toaster ovens. And don’t be afraid to ask friends and family for any overstock they may have, i.e., extra dishes, utensils, etc.

Be sure to communicate frequently with roommates or potential roommates to find out who is bringing what in order to avoid doubling up on items, as well as to spread the costs around.

And last but not least, don’t forget travel costs. If you’re attending an out-of-state school, prepare for plane tickets, car rentals, shipping, or whatever else might be involved in getting back and forth. Keep an eye on travel sites for deals and plan ahead for holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Spring Break.


Enjoy the Ride

College planning can be one of the most stressful undertakings of a high school student’s life – never mind their parents’. However, it’s also a reward for 18 years of hard work. The years after high school can be some of the most educational, enlightening, and adventure-filled years of your life, so don’t forget to slow down and enjoy both your  present situation and your anticipation of the future.

Leaving high school and/or leaving home is a huge transition for the entire family. Make the most of your time together in the coming months. Accept what lies ahead with gratitude – after all, you’ve ALL worked hard to get here. But don’t forget that it’s ok to feel apprehension and uncertainty. Like everything in life, just take it step-by-step and day-by-day and have faith in the process.

We wish you all the best, students and parents alike, as you prepare for the next big chapter of your lives. May it be the best one yet!