The Pre-College Checklist for Worried Parents

This is an exhaustive checklist for worried parents of high school children and college freshman. This is not a checklist for easy-going, flying-by-the-seat-of-our-pants parents. It is not for the faint of heart.

College is a serious step in your child's life, and whether you believe it or not, it's pretty complicated -- much more so than it was just 20 years ago. I wish I had been more familiar with the ins and outs of the college process when my children went to college. Things were different then, and certainly not as complex as they are today.

Here are five things you need to address before your child goes off to college in the 21st century.

Help them focus on their passion
College is no easy task, even when you're absolutely sure of the career path you want to take. In reality, most teenagers don't know what they want to do in the future. Elka Torpey writes for the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, "In fact, students are likely to change their minds [about their major/career] multiple times, perhaps even after they enter the workforce. And some of tomorrow's careers might not exist today."

If your kids are anything like mine, they don't have a clue what career they want to pursue yet. In this case, you could encourage your child to take a gap year to discover their passions and get the chance to take part in some volunteer work, charity, or internships.

Don't press your child to take a year off if they haven't shown a track record of true responsibility, though--the other side of this coin is that the extra time off can enable a person's least productive tendencies rather than helping them discover what they'd really like to do with their future.

Choosing the right college
There's no guarantee you'll get it right, but doing some extra research on the schools your child is interested in can help make sure the college they choose will be a good fit.

While some schools will seem to be perfect at first glance, seemingly small issues and policies can end up making the experience a negative one. If getting an ACT or SAT score within a school's required range is an issue for your child (as it is for many), it might be worth it to find a tutor or purchase practice books that are proven to raise a student's test score.

Some things to keep in mind as you help your child narrow down the colleges they're interested in applying to:

  • Their personality and social preferences

  • The degree path they'll be taking
  • Private or public?
  • Is it accredited?
  • What ACT/SAT score do they need to get in?
  • Your overall budget
  • The school's location
  • Availability of athletics/extra-curricular activities
  • Religious or gender-specific campuses
  • Availability of work-study programs
  • Get the money in order
    College is a notoriously expensive venture, and the stress of paying for tuition alone is debilitating for a lot of parents. Add in the cost of meal plans, room and board, textbooks, supplies, lab fees, and spending money for your student and suddenly, it all seems a little overwhelming.

    Things to keep in mind on college finances:

    1. The FAFSA operates on strict deadlines and can't be sent in late without a lengthy process of appeals, so make sure your child fills out and submits the FAFSA (even if you have to estimate tax return info for that year) before the deadline. Another tip: Some of the financial aid awards and grants are given out on a first-come, first-served basis, so it's wise to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible to make sure your child receives as much financial aid award as possible.

  • There are tons of student loan options available, depending on your or your child's approval. Make sure you select an option that you fully understand and can financially plan for. For example, a friend of mine didn't realize that her son's loans were accruing interest the whole time he was in school. When he graduated and went to submit his first payment, he saw that his total was far above what he originally owed -- all because they hadn't realized his interest started building before he was required to pay on the principle. Don't make this mistake! Do your research and read as many unbiased loan reviews as you can stand. This is a decision that needs to be carefully considered.
  • If you're helping them financially through college, decide how much you're willing to offer them as spending money, and what their overall budget needs to be. They'll need this baseline from you so they know what plan to follow. It's helpful if they've chosen a meal plan, as they won't need to spend much money on food and eating out. If no meal plan is offered at their school of choice, make sure they know how to efficiently and cost effectively shop for groceries--and research some easy microwavable recipes!
  • Ask for their contribution
    As a parent, you're there to help, but you can't do it all. Your children will get more out of the college experience and thank you for it later if you insist they help contribute to and invest in their education. Examples of ways you can ask them to contribute:

    Part time job
    A part-time job shouldn't interfere with their studies, and it will provide them with enough extra money to contribute to their education costs and give them some spending money, too. It also teaches important lessons about responsibility.

    Work study program
    These programs are great for students who don't have a car or would have trouble keeping part-time employment due to scheduling conflicts with school. They'll earn money that goes toward their tuition, reducing what they owe overall.

    Scholarships and grants
    If academics is really their thing, have them apply for scholarships and grants. There are millions available online through several different databases, and the criteria is different for each one. Some require essay submissions, some require a specific major or year of study, and others simply require you to enter a sweepstakes-style contest (be wary of these).

    Get technical
    If you don't know how to use Skype, learn it. If you don't text or use your cell phone often, brush up on your skills. When your child is in college, most of your communication will take place via phone or computer. If you're a little behind on the technology, your relationship with your child could suffer.

    My advice: Before they go off to college, have them give you a crash course in any technical thing you're unsure about. It'll give you a great excuse to spend some time together before they leave, and will actually benefit you once they go.

    It's clear that college can be overwhelming to parents and students alike. Start with this checklist and move through it with confidence, knowing you're doing your best to ensure your child has a great college experience. There are a wealth of resources online that will further help your child prepare for this major milestone in life. Don't forget to have your child talk to their school guidance counselor for more clarity and direction on what they should do before starting college. Good luck!