Where Do I Begin?



If you’re a junior, or even a sophomore, in high school, chances are you’ve thought about college a few times. But it’s overwhelming to start the college planning process. Here are some questions you can ask yourself to get the ball rolling:

Where do I want to be?

Seems like a simple enough question, right? Start broadly. Do you want to be on the East Coast, the West Coast? In the middle? In the south? As you do searches on College Board or Naviance, narrow down the general geographical area each time you search. Some more specific questions you should consider are: Do you want to be in a big city like New York, LA or Boston? Do you want to be near a city but not in it? Do you want to be out in the country?

When thinking about where you want to be, there are some aspects to consider. If you go far from home, transportation costs will be higher. For example, when I was the Director of College Counseling at a small school on the coast of Maine, I had a student who went to University of Southern California. He and his family had to consider the cost of getting him to and from college and he only came home at Christmas and for the summer. During the other school breaks, he had to stay in California. That worked for him but make sure it will work for you and your family. If you live in a large city, say New York, you may end up having higher housing costs. And then there’s the distraction factor. There’s a lot going on in New York all the time. It’s easy to blow off an assignment when something fun is happening in the city. The flip side of that, though, is that there are lots of opportunities in a large city. Internships are more likely and options for delving into your interests abound. If you’re an avid outdoors person, you may want to consider what is available near you. If you love to ski, being in the Midwest or Florida may not be the best choice for you.

What size school do I want to go to?

Do you want to go to a very small (1000 students or less) school? Do you want want a medium-sized school that has 2500-5000 students or maybe a large school that has well over 15,000 students?

There are advantages and disadvantages to each. If you come from a small, rural high school, chances are you are ready to go to a larger school. However, that can be overwhelming. I went to a small high school in a town of fewer than 2000 residents. In my first year of college, I was in a biology class that had over 500 students in it. That was larger than my high school! It took me a little while to find my footing and navigate the university that had 10,000 students. The advantage was that I met a lot of new people who had very different backgrounds than I did. In smaller colleges, it’s easier to connect with people. You see the same students every day; the professors know you by name; and it feels much more personal. Maybe you want a little more anonymity than that.

What kind of school do I want?

Do you want a liberal arts school? A large research university that has many different tracks like engineering, education, business? A tech school that focuses on science, technology, engineering, and math? An art school?
Maybe you’re not sure yet. As you think more where your interests lie, this part will come together. To help you figure this out, start thinking about what interests you. What is your favorite subject in high school. More importantly, why is it your favorite subject? What is your favorite class so far? What was it about the class that you liked? The teacher? The subject matter? Start writing some of this down to refer to later. If you love art and have taken a lot of art classes, start saving your pieces in order to create a portfolio. Many colleges accept a portfolio as part of your application even if you’re not going to study art. It’s another way the admissions offices get to know you.

What next?

Now that you’ve thought about this, try doing some searches on College Board or Naviance. Put in different parameters to come up with different lists of colleges. Try not to narrow it down too much (you won’t get enough results) but don’t make it so broad that you get 2000 colleges on your results list. Once you have a list of 20-40 colleges, look through it. There will be schools on there that you know. But there will be colleges you’ve never heard of, too. Pick two or three that you’re not familiar with and research them. Go to their websites and look at the majors they offer. Look at the activities that students do. See if there’s a Facebook page. There are a lot of schools out there that you’ve never heard of but would be great fits for you. It just takes a little time and research to find them.

Free Application to Federal Student Aid (AKA the FAFSA)


Many students who apply to college will also need to apply for financial aid. For those students attending college in the fall of 2017, the Free Application to Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will be available on October 1, 2016. But there are some things you should do before you fill out that application.


First, the student, and at least one parent, need to create an FSA ID. This is a username and password that you will use to electronically sign your FAFSA. (The federal government used to use a PIN but now uses the FSA ID.) Adam H. Blumenthal has created an excellent video on how to create your FSA ID: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wZ_A1eHJKec

Once you’ve created your FSA ID and it is October 1 or later, you can log into fafsa.ed.gov. Don’t be fooled by some websites that ask for a payment. It is FREE to apply for federal student aid. There are some scam websites out there so beware and make sure you’re on the right website.

IRS Data Retrieval Tool

For the past few years, the FAFSA has allowed applicants and their parents to link their tax returns to the FAFSA through the IRS Data Retrieval Tool. While it’s not mandatory to use it, it does make life a lot easier for you and for the colleges. According to the Department of Education using the IRS Data Retrieval Tool will make it less likely that you will be selected for verification. Being selected for verification just means that you will likely need to send more information to the colleges regarding your financial situation.

The good thing about the new date for the FAFSA is that you get to use the tax return that most people have already filed in April. So, for students attending college in the fall of 2017, they can fill out the FAFSA in October 2016 using 2015 tax information. This will make it easier for parents. (In the past, parents and students filled out the forms in January and then had to amend their FAFSA once their taxes were processed. That made for a lot of angst and headache.)

Some Unanswered Questions

Because filing in October is new this year, there are some questions that remain unanswered. Will colleges have an earlier deadline for financial aid? Will students get a financial aid award letter earlier? What happens if your financial situation has changed drastically since you filed your 2015 taxes? (In that case, call the financial aid offices of the schools to which your student is applying and explain what’s going on.)

Overall, I think this is a great change that will make the process easier for families. And that’s always a good thing.

How to Make the Most of Your Summer


Summer is the time to kick back, relax and enjoy the time off from school, right? Sleeping in, hanging out with friends, going to the beach–what more could there be? Well, if you’re thinking about college, you should be making the most of your summer. There are a lot of ways to make your summer both fun and productive.


Summer is a great time to get a job and start saving for college expenses. Depending on where you live, you can get a job mowing lawns, babysitting, being a cashier at a grocery store or maybe find some work that is related to a career interest. It doesn’t have to be a full time job nor does it have to be something that you want to do for the rest of your life. College is expensive so saving up some money while you’re still in high school is a good thing.


Giving back to your community is a great thing to do. There are so many ways to volunteer. Do you love to read? Maybe your local public library needs some help organizing/reshelving books. Do you love being outdoors? Check to see if there’s a local land trust or state park that needs help trail building. Those organizations may also have some indoor work such as filing or stuffing envelopes. Your local church is another good place to look for volunteer opportunities. Volunteering/community service not only helps out the community, but it helps you make connections and it feels good to be of help. Who knows, maybe you’ll get an idea for a college application essay through your service.


These may be harder to find in your local area but if you have the ability to travel, there are opportunities out there. Just be aware that most internships are unpaid. Some of my students live on the coast of Maine near two large research laboratories. Each summer, these labs offer internships for local high school students. One of my students went through the internship a number of years ago and she will soon be graduating from Bowdoin College with a biology degree and is applying to medical schools. She said that the internship solidified her choice of pursuing a medical degree.

Summer is a time for fun and relaxation but it’s also a time for you to earn some money, discover new paths, and plan for the future. Take advantage of the longer days and less structured time to explore and learn in non-school settings. You won’t regret it.

Making the Transition to College

It’s the time of year that seniors in high school are ready to move on. They have finished the college applications, heard the decisions, both good and bad, and paid their deposit to the school of their choice. All that’s left is high school graduation, the freedom of summer and starting a new chapter in the fall. Made in the shade, right?

Not necessarily. This time of transition can be stressful for students. Everything about their lives is about to change. And they haven’t figured that out yet. Once students move onto their college campus, they are in a new phase of their life and it can be a bumpy ride.


Academically, life is very different. A typical first year college student is in class 15 hours a week. That’s probably less than half the time that they spent in class during high school. What students don’t realize is that they should be spending at least 30 hours a week on their school-work outside of the classroom. Many first year students I know are amazed at how much free time they have and they don’t use it wisely. By the middle of the semester, they may have figured out that they should have done all that textbook reading that is on the syllabus instead of sleeping all afternoon. Professors expect the students to work on their own outside of class and it is a rare student who is successful who doesn’t do this.

Also, there are far fewer grades on which a student’s final grade is based. I once had a first year student whose class had four equally weighted tests that determined the final grade in the course. My student assured me that he was going to get an A in the class despite a 50 on the first test and a 55 on the second. Clearly that didn’t happen.

Social Life

Students are on their own for the first time. They have to get up in time for class without a parent waking them up. They must get to meals on time. The food is different than what they had at home. They have to do their own laundry. They have to make new friends and adjust to having a roommate or two. Students are given a lot of responsibility from the very first day on campus. Balancing the academic side and the social side can be difficult.

How to Help

What can parents do to help their students? Talking about what’s going to change can help ease the stress. Encourage your child to become a self-advocate and to seek out help if needed. College campuses are full of resources and they are there to help students succeed. Staying on campus and getting involved in the life of the school can go a long way to making students feel part of a community and keep loneliness at bay. Be prepared for tear-filled phone conversations but don’t panic. They will use you as a sounding board but, with your support, they will make it through that first semester.