As a new school year gets underway (we Oregonians being among the last to get it underway yesterday and today), a question I hear a lot is, “Now that [Name] is a [Grade], what should we be doing to prepare for college?” Here are some suggestions:

High school students:

  • Start looking at the Common App essay prompts. The 2016-2017 prompts are here. They don’t usually change dramatically from year to year. Knowing the types of topics can help students to track or memorialize situations or experiences that could become essay topics.
  • Start studying for the SAT/ACT. Take some practice tests to get a feel for which one is more suited to you. Most libraries have test prep materials and books, so you can do this without investing any money.
  • Visit some local colleges, even if you’re not interested in them. I’d almost say, pick one or two that you’re definitely not interested in and visit it. Why? Because when you start visiting colleges*, they’re all amazing– tons of people your own age, without adult supervision, doing cool things in interesting classrooms on beautiful campuses. So having some benchmarks of schools that are less than amazing can help your student distill what they truly do and don’t like in a college environment.
  • Plan at least one college visit* every time your family travels somewhere, even if it’s just driving to your grandparents.
  • Look at merit scholarships at schools you are interested in as well as net price calculators. Generally the minimum requirements for scholarships are posted. Knowing these two things can help students to see what their actual cost is likely to be, and to have academic goals in mind if their desired schools are financially out of reach without merit scholarships.


  • Get acquainted with the FAFSA formula and run the numbers on your own situation. The formula and worksheets are here. Get a sense of your EFC so you know if your student is more likely to be a merit or need aid candidate.
  • If you haven’t already done so, open a 529 account and start saving. Savings only costs a maximum of 5.64% on the FAFSA formula, so every $1,000 of savings above the asset protection allowance only reduces your aid by $56.40. That means you’re ahead by $943.60.
  • Have a conversation with your student about what you can pay for college and what impact student loan debt would have on their lives.

Younger than High School Students:

  • Read. Read read read read read.
  • Visit some of your local colleges.

* When I say college visits for high school students, I mean schedule a visit at the school. Don’t just go walk around the campus; do the official school tour. Why? You’ll meet some actual students. You’ll be on the school’s record of students who have visited (this is the all-important-to-some “demonstrated interest”). You’ll learn things about the school that you wouldn’t otherwise. You’ll probably get to eat a meal at the school and check out dorms.