College and Career Action Plan for High School Students (And Their Families)


Can we agree that kids grow up way too fast?!

Your own baby may be starting their freshman year of high school this year. It’s okay, you’ve got this. Just breathe…

As exciting and potentially overwhelming as high school can be, this is also a time to sneak a peek a few years into the future.

Your cute (or maybe angsty) teenager will be heading off to college and you’ll be standing there holding their little fuzzy bunny.

So, how can you plan now for that day, that bittersweet day when your baby waves bye and you’re left hoping you did everything right? It may not be college. It could be one last hug before they ship off to Basic Training or bootcamp. Or kick start their new business. Or start their apprenticeship or trade school.

What are some steps you can take now to get ready for whatever brave new adventure your baby will chase?

That’s where our College & Career Action Plan is built for you. In this article, we’ll share helpful tips, questions to consider, and ideas to implement to ensure you and your high schooler can move through this next phase of life as smoothly and successfully as possible.

First, let’s start with making the most of these fast-as-a-flash four years called high school.

Getting Great Grades through High School

Freshman year is when your high school GPA calculator starts up. This may be the first time your child realizes their grades really matter. Their future college applications will include grades from classes taken in 9th, 10th, and 11th grade, so it’s time to get a bit more serious.

That’s where you can help. Work with your child to organize their weeks, their school schedules, plan out their project work and deadlines, and set some great goals for the school year. This can help them stay motivated and focused. Encourage your child to do well in their classes and meet with their guidance counselor to start building a great relationship.

For sophomores, they will choose courses for their junior year in the second half of the school year. This is a great opportunity to look at AP, IB, dual enrollment or additional classes that align with their abilities and goals. Some of these classes can save money on college. Most importantly, it’s an amazing moment to show your child you support them as they grow and learn.

When the calendar flips to your child’s junior year, it’s all about meeting graduation requirements. This may be a great time to connect with their guidance counselor more, especially if your child is in a challenging class. Junior year is the last full year of grades to show off to colleges. With a little more organization and forethought, this can be a great time for your child to shine.

Although only the first three years of high school will go on the transcript used with the application, most colleges still do a mid-year grade check. Translation: your child still needs to remain dedicated to their school work as a senior. Again, if they’re in a tough class, reach out to their guidance counselor to get the right help.

“Are we on schedule to graduate?” That’s a key question you’re likely asking in your mind at least a few times throughout their junior and senior year. Encouraging your highschooler to continue meeting with their guidance counselor and keeping track of their grades through the years can help you know they’re on the right track.

During the first few months of their senior year, your child will finalize their applications, finish essays, and collect letters of recommendation. You can offer to review the application and essay for your child, but be sure the writing and material is their own. Students should think about who they would like to request a letter of recommendation from and talk with that person about it. Remember to give plenty of advance notice to that person to help manage expectations.

“So, What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?”

You’ve heard that classic question, and the truth is there’s a lot of pressure for any of us to have to figure out exactly who we want to be and what we want to do. Your child may have zero clue what they want to pursue.

The good news is they have time. High school is a great first window of time where they can talk about what they like doing, what’s interesting to them, and what means the most. One of the best truths you can communicate to your child is that there are many great opportunities besides college.

In all the conversation about finding a college and taking the right courses, thinking about a potential career can get lost in the shuffle. However, students with specific career goals in mind will find the college search so much easier and can avoid wasting extra semesters of college costs, which can really add up!

Students find success in identifying a college major when they know things about themselves – their interests, skills, challenges, and values. They may realize college isn’t the right fit for them, but starting a business or pursuing a trade is. Did you know that nearly 80 percent of the jobs in the military are non-combat occupations? If your child is interested in the military, do your research and meet with recruiters.

Giving your child the support they need to find what’s interesting to them can be a great first step. Students may need help with this thinking. Sometimes interest surveys can help but don’t be discouraged if they don’t.

Around January of their junior year, your child will start selecting courses for their senior year. Carefully weigh the selections in view of your child’s abilities and goals. Again, AP, IB, and dual enrollment are all options that might earn college credit and save you money. In addition to saving money, colleges like to see academic progress appropriate to your child’s ability in their chosen courses.

In an ideal situation, seniors will have narrowed down their college major to two or three options. Having a clear major and future career in mind makes the selection of the college much easier because you’ll look for a school that’s strong in the area of interest.

Senior year classes and summer opportunities can continue to help your child explore their interests. Your child can research available careers online. Watch some YouTube “day in the life of” videos about potential careers. The more research, the better.

If your child is headed to the military, you’ll want to meet with a recruiter and enlist. A great benefit of military service is that it can help pay for college later.

If your child is heading into a career straight out of high school, you can help write up their resume and ask for references from their teachers and employers.

With all the planning and growing pressure though, it’s also good to sometimes simply focus on spending time together. The journey of college and jumping into adulthood will come soon enough.
All of this is leading up to that glorious bittersweet moment: graduation.

Pomp and Circumstance is playing, square caps flying sky high, and yes, parents may be tearing up knowing they grow up so fast! Now, what? When the grad party is over and their (likely) last summer at home arrives, how can you know they’re ready for what the next year may bring?

Preparing for Life After High School

Your child will have plenty of decisions to make after high school – what career to pursue, where to go next, who they want to be. Preparing for life after high school largely depends on what your child is like and what their future goals may be.

As a freshman, they can start building their resume of extracurricular activities, community service projects, and eventually work experiences. These activities are great ways to be more engaged in school. All are valuable nuggets of information on the college application. A student does not need 10 different activities. In fact, colleges would prefer that a student have only a few key activities they pursue, show passion for, and grow into over the years.

As their parent, you can help keep track of all the details about honors/awards, interest groups, community service, extracurricular activities, and leadership positions in your child’s high school years. You’ll need that information when they start applying for colleges. You don’t want to be trying to recreate that information in August of their senior year.

Testing – PSAT, ACT, SAT

Yes, we need to talk about the dreaded SAT and ACT! For students, especially high school upperclassmen, it can seem like a never-ending testing cycle. The PSAT/NMSQT is an exam offered to all juniors in October. Sophomores may be offered the option to take the test for practice. (Your school may offer the PSAT 10.)

During your child’s junior year, the primary purpose of this test is to identify candidates for the National Merit Scholarship awards. Taking the test in their sophomore year, can be practice for the SAT. (However, in our opinion, a better way to ‘practice’ for the SAT is to take the actual SAT exam.) If your child has an IEP or 504 Plan, you will likely want to speak with their guidance counselor about accommodations for the ACT and SAT. This process is lengthy so it’s a good idea to start as soon as possible.

Ideally, students should take the ACT or SAT as close to the completion of Algebra II or Geometry as possible, usually close to the start of their junior year. Students can quickly forget what they learned in Geometry so try to schedule an exam when the material is still fresh in the student’s mind.

Taking the actual exams early is great practice for understanding the topics covered and the timing involved. Try to take each one once. Identify the preferred test for your child, and then, take it again two or three times during their junior or senior years.

By their senior year, your child will likely have taken the ACT, SAT, or both at least a few times. Students often re-take these tests at least one more time before the end of December. Your child will need to request their testing scores be sent directly to the college(s) where they’re applying. It can sometimes take at least a week or two for test scores to arrive, so be sure to request the test scores well before a college application deadline.

Go Tech? Go State? Go Check Out Both!

If your child is a freshman or sophomore, it’s an excellent opportunity to talk about where they may want to go to college. Of course, setting up college visits takes some planning, but that may be overwhelming for your child as an underclassman.

College representative visits to your child’s school can be a great conversation starter. You can ask your child what they like about where they live and what they may want to live near as they get older.

During their sophomore year, having one ‘official’ college visit is a good idea. They can start a very general list of colleges that sound interesting and then begin narrowing that list down throughout the year.

When application time is nearing, having official visits – where you register with the college for a tour and information session – is a good idea. Showing interest with an official visit catches colleges’ attention. You can work with your child to start narrowing down the types of schools they’re interested in based on their preferred criteria – big vs. small, urban vs rural vs suburban, etc.

Applying for College

Of course, the big step is applying for college. The good news is it’s easier than ever to apply and sort through college opportunities. The Common App is used by more than 800 colleges and goes live on August 1st each year.

Many early application deadlines are in November or December, but some are as early as October. These dates are sometimes startling for students – the calendar can move so fast! Thankfully, a little prep work can help minimize the stress later. Start brainstorming essay topics. Think about which teachers you will ask for letters of recommendation. Identify if the college uses a separate application or supplemental questionnaire.

And through this whole experience, try to savor making great memories with your child. These last few years are a blink to many parents.

As your child applies for college, the conversation will inevitably circle back to one key detail: paying for life after high school. This is the several-thousands-of-dollars question, right?
When your child starts thinking about colleges, trade schools, or even starting a business, you as their parent may start thinking (maybe worrying?) about how to pay for it! If you’re the parent of a high school freshman, you may not realize how much it will actually cost. FYI: plan for it costing around $25k per year for public college and around $50k per year for attending a private college. Don’t panic!

A good place to start with planning for your child’s college is to have the college money conversation with them. It’s so important (and will avoid much heartache) if you and your child are on the same page about how much college they can afford! We have seen too many parents struggle with telling their children “Sorry, no” when their dream college is too expensive.

Get the facts about what colleges cost and gain the knowledge you need about financial aid, scholarships, loans, work-study, etc. You need to understand how all the puzzle pieces fit together. Freshman year is NOT too early to start this learning. What financial aid is available and how do you qualify for it?

Also, consider asking Grandma and Grandpa about their plans. They may want to help, and you want to ensure their help doesn’t hurt potential financial aid while still fitting with their estate planning. Even giving gifts in the form of deposits to your child’s 529 plan are good ideas to help save.

While most merit aid or scholarships are awarded by the colleges themselves, searching for private scholarships can be something ongoing that you and your student can start considering. Remember to use their guidance counselor as a resource.

Understanding the Financial Costs of Life After High School

Part of creating your child’s college list with them includes helping them understand how much each college will cost. First, estimate your family’s Expected Family Contribution. Here’s a link to a calculator you can use to generate the estimate. Next, use the Net Cost Calculator on each college’s website to determine potential financial aid and net price at each school. We highly recommend spending time on each college’s website to read about potential merit aid.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA goes live on October 1st. Your child and either you or their other parent (if they’re in the picture) will need a FSA ID prior to getting started. We recommend gathering your most recent tax returns and get that task done sooner rather than later. Even if you aren’t going to qualify for financial aid, you should still file the FAFSA. Some schools require it to give merit scholarships and Federal student loans will require filing of the FAFSA.

If your family is a potential needs-based aid candidate, be sure to filter for that in the college search. Identify those colleges to which your child could be admitted and which school may provide the most free money. Some colleges use a different financial aid application called the CSS Profile™. This application requires more detailed information than the FAFSA.

Make sure to apply for aid prior to each college’s respective deadline. College funds are first come, first served so the earlier you apply, the better. Colleges will not make exceptions for filings past their deadline date.

Applying for Scholarships in High School

The #1 source of money for college is directly from the actual college. Seek out those schools that provide merit aid for which your child might qualify. Your child can also find and apply for outside scholarships. Check with your guidance counselor for local opportunities.

If you decide to find outside scholarships, be sure to have a game plan and stay on top of the deadlines and requirements for each scholarship opportunity.

Discussing affordability

After you’ve gathered information of how much each school may cost, it’s important to discuss with your child how much college can be afforded and who will be responsible for paying the costs. Do you plan to pay for all of the costs? Or do you expect your child to contribute?

Will it be paid from 529s, gifts from grandparents, your cash flow, student loans or a combination? Do you expect your child to work during the school year and/or summers to contribute to the cost? How much do you expect your child to contribute? Document how much you expect can be paid from each source each year so that you know how much you can afford to pay each year.

From a financial perspective, the purpose of going to college is to get a degree to do a job that you can’t do without one (or to get ahead in that profession at a more rapid pace). If you’re considering taking out student loans and expect your child to be the one to pay them back, look into the starting salaries for the career your child is interested in pursuing.

Compare the amount of the starting salary to the amount of the estimated loan payment. Show your child how much of their salary could be going to pay back student loans each month. With this information, they may reconsider which school they want to attend or the career that they want to pursue.

Deciding on Your Child’s School

May 1st is Decision Day for most colleges and universities. Prior to that, your child will have received acceptance letters and financial aid award notices. These two documents often come separately. You find out they’re accepted well before you find out how much it will cost!

Financial aid award notices are not always straightforward and easy to understand- a pet peeve of ours! Take some time to understand how much is free money that you don’t have to pay back and how much of the offer is loans and work study. Also, you may want to consider whether or not to appeal an aid award offer. Successfully appealing an aid award requires some additional thought and planning.

Before committing to any school, be sure both you and your child understand how much college will cost for all four years. Your student needs to understand what a student loan monthly payment will look like after graduating. What are the terms of a loan? How does that work?

Once the final decision is made, it’s time to write the first check. Your child accepts the college’s offer, and a deposit is made. Let the celebration begin! Time to break out the new college t-shirt and bumper sticker!

Preparing for Next Summer

Over the summer after graduation, your child’s new college will host orientation events. Students will choose their first college courses and select housing. Shopping will commence for the student’s new digs. Final transcripts will be sent to the college in May or June. Make sure your child is familiar with tackling daily tasks they will need to conquer on their own when they move out of your home, like doing the laundry, cooking, cleaning, what to do if they get sick, etc.

This is also a good time to talk about budgeting. What are the benefits of having a written budget – and sticking with it – especially when new friends want to go on a spending spree their first week of college. This is the first time for many students to feel freedom financially and they’re old enough to apply for (and rack up debt upon) credit cards.

Having a job over the summer helps students understand the work environment with management and customers. Talk with your soon-to-be college student about who pays for what at college. Having a job can help defray some of those costs.

Summer is a great time to explore interests and learn new skills at meaningful summer camps. It’s also the obvious time for students to make money to put toward college costs or savings for the school year. Have conversations about paying for college as a family. If your child is going into their junior year next year, visit a college campus to help stir up a little excitement.

Encourage them to get a summer job. Working is the only real way to see what the post-graduation world is like and will help them understand what kinds of work environments they prefer.

With all the planning and growing pressure though, it’s also good to sometimes just focus on spending time together. The journey of college and jumping into adulthood will come soon enough. For now though, follow these steps and savor these last few years together.

Your ‘baby’ has come a long way, and you are starting on a new adventure as they begin their post-high school journey. Congratulations!

Now, there’s a good chance you have more questions specifically related to financial planning for college. The first step is sharing more of your story with our team through an initial call.

There’s no cost and no obligation to schedule an initial 20-minute call. Click here to take the first step.


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