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What to Expect When You're Expecting College Acceptances

Alyssa Abel

Remember your senior year of high school? Whether you feel nostalgic for those days or not, you may have forgotten exactly how it felt not to know what college you'd attend, where you'd live and what you'd study, if you'd ever make friends as good as the ones you grew up with, and more.

Now your child is in the same place you once were, which brings along a whole new set of emotions — for them and for you. These emotions heighten as your student waits to hear back from the colleges they applied to in the fall. It can feel like a single letter in the mail or an online update will decide the course of their entire future.

While you wait on the news this winter, it's essential to remain calm, cool and collected. Here are a few ways you can guide your student through this experience.

1. Talk About the Budget for College

Tuition prices in the United States have increased over the past few decades — more so than the average salary. Outside of buying a home, higher education is one of the biggest investments your family may ever make.

The period between sending out applications and receiving acceptances offers the perfect opportunity to discuss family finances for the next four years. An online cost calculator can help you predict how expenses will rise each year.

Sit down with your student and have an open conversation about the money available for college expenses. Will you draw on 529 college savings accounts? Will you take out student and/or parent loans? Do you expect your student to take responsibility for their education by working and borrowing what they can? Whatever the situation and your expectations, make sure they understand how things stand financially. It’s important for them to be prepared.

It's also important to make sure your student has applied for financial aid. This item should be at the top of your checklist now, if you haven’t taken care of it already. The Free Application for Student Federal Aid, or FAFSA, is a must if you wish to qualify for grants, scholarships, federal work-study and loans. The paperwork opens on Oct. 1 each year — be sure you don’t miss the priority deadlines for the schools your student is considering.

Additionally, consider the cost of room and board on or off campus. Many universities require students to live in dorms for at least a year, but some schools allow freshmen to opt out.

Look at the housing regulations and options for two or three of your child’s top college choices — this way, you have an idea of whether dorm room living is required, as well as what the options are for each school. Renting off campus can be cheaper than paying for a dorm, but it will require a more carefully supervised budget, as it's solely the student’s responsibility to find and maintain a place. If any of your student’s potential colleges do allow off-campus housing, it’s important to consider what’s best beforehand.

2. Organize Preferences

Encourage your student to take some time right now to rank the schools they applied to in order of preference. The more schools they're interested in, the harder a decision will be. Research is critical here, so create a list that includes the pros, cons and attributes of each university: location, size, major programs and more.

Considering the cost of tuition, room and board is also important. (Use net price calculators to compare what you’ll pay at different schools.)

Remember to keep the preference list updated. Your student may already have received some acceptances or rejections, which is will help shape the rankings. By late winter or early spring, your student has also likely grown and changed since they first made their ideal list of colleges. They may feel differently about certain schools they’ve applied to.

Keeping a current list of your child’s college preferences will make the decision that much easier once you receive word from every institution they’ve applied to.

3. Encourage Continued Performance and Interest

Some degree of "senioritis" is inevitable, but just because your child has a high GPA now doesn't mean they stop studying when second semester rolls around. If their dream school puts them on a waitlist, those late achievements could be the deciding factor.

Encourage them to keep up their grades. If their motivation is lagging, have them speak to a guidance counselor who can help them make that final push to the finish line.

Your student may also want to consult with their counselor for advice on majors they’re considering. If they’re not set on a specific academic path yet, a counselor — or favorite teacher — can help them think about how their interests might line up with future studies or a career.

4. Look for Outside Scholarships

If your student filled out the FAFSA, they will automatically be considered for need-based financial aid from the federal government and the colleges. Most schools that offer merit aid also usually offer this automatically when admitting students.

If it looks like the cost of college will be a stretch even with anticipated financial aid, outside scholarships are a great way to bridge the gap. Businesses, organizations and private sponsors offer money that, if won, your student can apply to expenses at whatever college they decide to attend. You and your student should spend a few hours every week researching and applying for scholarships.

While the FAFSA determines eligibility for federal, state and school-specific aid, outside scholarships have their own requirements but don’t require the FAFSA.

There are many types of scholarships. Some are based on academic merit, while others focus on talents or subject-specific accomplishments. They may be local or national, and they come at a variety of price points, from full rides to a few hundred dollars.

If you already know what college your child will attend — or which are the top contenders — make sure to stay up to date with the university’s website and its various scholarship opportunities.

There are sure to be several scholarships perfect for your student — and applying for every opportunity should be a part of everyone’s college search. Encourage your student to put in the work, beware of student aid scams and score some extra funding for college.

Click here for more tips on how to spot and avoid scholarship scams >

5. Look Ahead a Season or Two

To take both your minds off all the college talk, start planning ahead for other aspects of the spring and summer.

Have you and your student thought about how they want to celebrate their graduation and who they want to share it with? It’s a good idea to plan your grad party ahead of time — plus it’s fun.

Without putting too much pressure on them, suggest they think about their options for the summer, too. Are they looking for a summer job? Dreaming about a post-graduation trip? The summer between high school and the first year of college is a special time, so start early to make it count.

6. Stay Positive!

Embrace the wait by finding time for the things that bring both of you joy. Maybe there’s a little something your student's been wishing for ... and you can help make that wish come true by paying for piano lessons or booking tickets to the concert they’ve been talking about. Help them steer their energy into other areas of their life.

And, if they'll let you, spend some quality time together as a family. Is there a weekend road trip you’ve been meaning to take?

If anxiousness threatens to overwhelm anyone in the household while you wait for news from the colleges, take a moment to breathe. Stay positive and appreciate how far your child has come as a student and young adult. Getting into college is an undeniable achievement, but it doesn't define someone. It won't be the end of the world if your high schooler doesn't make it into their top school. They have their whole lives to look forward to.

Alyssa Abel is an education writer and blogger with a focus on higher education. Read more of her work for students, educators and parents on her website,
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