I keep hearing variations on the theme of, “When things are uncertain, it’s helpful to have specific tasks to do.” So here is a to do list for you, sorted by your student’s age.

Current College Student

  • Check your course schedule to confirm if your in-person and online courses align such that you can get to both.
  • Make sure you know your school’s procedures for arrival in the fall, such as whether the school or city the school is in requires a quarantine period upon arrival.
  • If you’re not in on-campus housing, review your lease to see if you can get out of it if you are unable to return to campus or are sent home mid-year.
  • If you’re in on-campus housing, review your school’s policy about refunds as above.
  • If you’re thinking about taking a gap year or deferring, research your school’s policies on scholarships to make sure you don’t lose funding. My son’s school, for example, will continue scholarships for those who take a gap year as long as they don’t enroll at another college, including a community college.
  • If your financial situation has changed, reach out to financial aid to request a review or appeal. If so, check if you are now eligible for tax credits such as the AOTC in which case you’ll need to be sure to spend some out-of-pocket dollars (which could include a loan).

Incoming College Freshman

  • See the points above about course schedules, arrival, housing policies, finances and gap years.
  • Develop a spending plan for how you’re going to cover college costs. Most families use a combination of savings, cash flow and borrowing to cover the full cost. Make sure your student understands what expenses they’re responsible for.
  • Buy twin XL sheets while you still can.
  • No matter what anyone says, don’t buy books until after your first class. It’s not unusual for a syllabus to list books that are not actually required.
  • Start reflecting on the last 18 years and what an amazing young adult you’ve raised. Use those reflections to write an off to college letter to leave in their dorm, since that may be your last opportunity for active parenting.

Rising Senior

  • If you haven’t already, talk with your student about what level of financial support you are willing to provide for college and what you expect them to contribute. This will help them to narrow their search to options that are a financial fit.
  • Get started on the Common App. Specifically, enter some schools you’re interested in so you can see all the essays you’ll need and any supplementary items that schools want you to submit beyond what’s already requested in the Common App. Students who have participated in a variety of activities over the course of their high school career may also want to spend some time planning how to represent those in the limited space afforded by the Common App.
  • Research schools you’re interested in. Two good starting points are virtual tours (available on school websites) and net price calculators. If you are taking a lot of AP or IB classes, find out how these schools handle your credits: will you get actual credit, gen ed credit, or only placement? If a school seems like a good fit– personally and financially– reach out to Admissions and ask them to put you in contact with someone in your area who can tell you more about the school. Set up a database or Excel spreadsheet listing each school, the net price you calculated, and its admissions requirements including which application(s) it accepts, essays and supplements.
  • Think about standardized tests. Most schools are test-optional for admissions purposes; however, many still offer scholarships based on test scores. If your PSAT showed you are likely to do well on the SAT, it’s probably worth figuring out how to take it.
  • Research your in-state public options including four-year and community colleges, including what scholarships you qualify for.
  • Start working on your essays. If you want some guidance on getting started, I encourage you to watch my recent interview with essay coach Victoria Payne.
  • Start organizing your assets for the FAFSA. If you are planning to make IRA contributions, get them done before filling out the FAFSA to lower your assets. If your student has assets that can be retitled to the parents, that will be helpful for financial aid purposes. An easy way to do that is to have the student contribute savings they plan to use for college to their 529 account.

Rising Junior

  • If you haven’t already, talk with your student about what level of financial support you are willing to provide for college and what you expect them to contribute. This will help them to narrow their search to options that are a financial fit.
  • Start researching colleges, including their financial aid policies. In particular, look at scholarship options at your in-state public schools to determine what you’re likely to be eligible for and what the criteria are (e.g. weighted vs unweighted GPA). For other schools, find the 75th percentile for GPA and test scores at schools that give merit aid. College Navigator‘s Admissions tab has that info for most schools.
  • Do the FAFSA4caster to get a sense of your EFC. The main purpose of this is to determine whether you’re likely a candidate for need-based or merit aid.
  • If you already have some schools you’re interested in, do their net price calculators (google “[school name] net price calculator”) to get a sense of cost and whether you might reasonably expect to be able to afford it. This is a far better estimate than the FAFSA4caster and you are likely to get a wide range of results.

Other High School Student

  • Familiarize yourself with the FAFSA formula so that you can make any adjustments that would benefit you in the formula. That might include realizing capital gains in a taxable account pre-FAFSA base year (starting January of sophomore year), shifting retirement contributions from pre-tax to Roth during the base year, moving assets into retirement accounts or from taxable to 529.
  • Talk with your student about your expectations for college including what level of financial support you are willing to provide and what you expect them to contribute.
  • If you haven’t already, open a 529 account and start contributing. Even if it’s only a nominal amount, having some college savings has been shown to increase the likelihood that a student will enroll in and graduate from college.

Not Yet in High School

  • If you haven’t started saving for college, open a 529 account and start saving. Even if it’s only a small amount, every dollar of savings you have increases your child’s choices when they reach the point of applying to college.