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My high school senior is in full-time remote learning, which means he hasn’t had the same level of access to his guidance counselor that I think he would have otherwise. I think he’s received a few email reminders about college applications and financial aid forms, but I’m worried that he isn’t on top of them, and I’m having to play the role of guidance counselor. What do we need to know to make sure we’re taking care of everything for his applications?

Clueless in Colorado

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Chris Espinoza

As a Navigator for Greater Boston families, Chris Espinoza specializes in helping students on the path to a college education. A first generation college student himself, Chris worked at colleges and universities across Boston before joining EdNavigator. He’s also a gourmet chef in training and a proud dog dad.

Dear Clueless,


First of all, it doesn’t sound like you’re truly clueless, since you’re already aware that your senior has a lot of deadlines coming up fast and things might be falling through the cracks. Awareness is the first step toward getting everything done!


In addition to not being clueless, you’re also not alone. We’re seeing some evidence already that college applications are down this year, especially among first-generation and Black and Latinx students, which is a worrying sign. With so many students at home and away from their school’s college counseling resources, it may well be the case that things are getting lost in the shuffle. Some students may also be feeling uncertain about college, given the lack of clarity about what higher education will look like as the coronavirus pandemic continues (or even once it’s “over”).


All this to say, I’m glad you reached out. A lot of the college application process looks the same this year as any other year, but what’s different is that students (and families) need to be more on top of their game than ever before. Here are some key things you and your senior should get working on as soon as possible:


Get the FAFSA done. The FAFSA form is your son’s one-stop-shop for federal financial aid, including grants and loans, so it’s really important. While FAFSAs are accepted well into the spring (and deadlines vary by state), it’s best to get it taken care of as soon as possible to max out your aid package. (If you’ve had recent changes in income, like a job loss during the pandemic, these may be taken into account when your aid is determined. You should fill out the FAFSA as instructed and then contact the financial aid offices at your colleges of choice to let them know.) In addition, your son should confirm if any of the schools he’s applying to require a CSS Profile, which is a different standard financial aid form from the FAFSA. It’s not as common as the FAFSA, but you’ll want to know if you need one.


Connect with financial aid offices. Your son should set up a virtual meeting with a financial aid administrator at any colleges he’s applying to, so they can help point him in the direction of other scholarships and sources of aid. This also creates an opportunity for your son to start establishing a demonstrated interest in the school, which is great for his application.


Research more financial aid opportunities. There are lots of other places to find scholarships beyond the FAFSA, so your senior should use this time to research which opportunities will be good fits. College Greenlight and Fastweb are good places to search. He should explore financial aid opportunities available through your employer, religious institutions, local businesses you frequent, and even places he’s worked during summer vacations. We’ve got some insider tips on paying for college here.


Go on virtual tours. If he hasn’t already, your son should take advantage of whatever virtual tours are available for his colleges of interest. (He can check out Niche and YouVisit to search college tours.) And if he’s still on the fence, he shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to admissions offices. Admissions counselors are able to supplement information gathered from virtual tours and website research. They might also offer opportunities to sit in on virtual classes, or connect with current students or alumni.


Know your test options. In normal years, this would be a simple matter of signing up for the SAT and/or ACT. But this year, many colleges are changing things up. While many schools are making standardized tests optional, others are waiving tests only if students can prove they were unable to take them. Still others might consider PSAT scores instead. So it’s really important that your son figures out the policies at the particular colleges he’s interested in, so he can be prepared one way or another.


Focus on the application essays. With many colleges making tests optional this year, application essays are going to matter that much more. Your son should get multiple readers (like his English teacher or guidance counselor) to take a look and give him feedback. (And while you can be one of those readers, I highly recommend that he gets some objective eyes on them, too. Giving feedback on your kid’s college essays is a lot like teaching them to drive. You can do it, but it might be better for your relationship if you don’t.)


Request recommendation letters ASAP. Recommendation letters are the kind of thing that can often get left to the last minute, especially when students aren’t in the building with their teachers. Make sure your son is requesting his letters as soon as possible, and providing all his recommenders with the necessary links and forms.


Think through the incidental costs. Finally, it’s a good time to have a family conversation about the non-tuition costs of attending college, like transportation to and from campus, living expenses, books, and more. Set a realistic budget so none of you are surprised by hidden costs that crop up down the road.


Planning for college and getting applications out the door is a lot of work for the whole family, and all the more so in the COVID-19 era, when there are so many extra unknowns. If your son can knock some big items off his to-do list before the new year, he’ll be in great shape.

“A lot of the college application process looks the same this year as any other year, but what’s different is that students (and families) need to be more on top of their game than ever before.”