“Inertia and College Planning”

by Peter Van Buskirk

“When is the best time to start college planning?”

It’s a question I hear often—usually with equal hints of angst and expectation. Those raising it are parents, mindful that “college is coming” despite the seeming indifference their children display toward the subject. While the business of looking at colleges and applying for admission looms larger on moms’ and dads’ radar screens by the day, it has yet to spark any outward signs of curiosity in their children.

If you are one of these parents, you probably find the inertia to be maddening! The “life calendar” might say, “It’s time to get started—there are places to go, things to do and decisions to be made”—but the central figure in this pending drama doesn’t seem to be the least bit interested!

Herein lies the dilemma that comes with being able to see beyond the horizon. While your teenager is content to live in the moment, you can see, all too clearly, the big picture that is about to unfold. You know what’s coming and appreciate the need to be well prepared, yet your calls to action go unheeded. And, in matters related to college, you have probably spent the better part of your adult life readying your child (and yourself) to make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead. You can’t help but think, “The time is now—let’s do it!”

Having “been there and done that” with three kids, I get it. I also know from experience that forcing the issue prematurely can be counterproductive. That’s why it is important to make the distinction between college awareness and college planning.

It is never too early to promote college awareness and implicitly with it, goal setting. When kids grow up knowing that college is not only an option for their future, but one that can provide the foundation for bigger and better things in their lives, they develop a context for decision-making that takes on increasing importance as they move through their high school years. As you promote college awareness, then:

  1. Think and talk hypothetically about the future—muse about opportunities and options.
  2. Avoid any rush to judgment about colleges or careers. The perceived need to do so can be paralyzing as young people rarely possess the insight and experience to be able to plan with any degree of certainty. Besides, there will be time for such deliberations later.
  3. Test assumptions—about everything!
  4. Feed interests. Encourage your student to invest in the interests and perspectives that give him/her joy in life, e.g., to find opportunities to develop talent, expand involvement and pursue leadership.
  5. Create exposure to institutional options by visiting all types of college and university campuses. Take advantage of opportunities to sample cultural, social and athletic events. The greater the exposure a student has to the range of options, the broader their perspective is when it comes time to make critical distinctions in the planning process.
  6. Encourage reading. Not only is it the best test prep out there, good readers also become better writers—a factor that will come into play when college essays need to be written.
  7. Support and recognize intellectual rigor and academic excellence. Keep your student focused on taking courses that provide a reasonable challenge and don’t allow “good enough” to become an acceptable characterization of effort or outcomes.
  8. Promote good decision-making. Students need to recognize that the choices they make on a daily basis, with regard to matters academic and otherwise, will eventually have a bearing on their competitiveness as college applicants.

By cultivating college awareness, you incrementally foster a level of comfort, if not expectation, with the concept that contributes to a more seamless transition into actual planning.

College planning, on the other hand, is a different ballgame. It literally revolves around a reasoned strategy—not an obsession—for finding and getting into the institution that fits the student best. As such, college planning is likely to include a range of tactical elements from test prep and course selections to essay development and admission interviews. Moreover, ownership is vital. For these things to be done purposefully and well, the student needs to take the lead in their execution. She/he can no longer be a spectator. After all, Mom and Dad are not the ones going to college!

The absence of a reliable timetable for this development can drive you nuts especially when you see or hear of other students who have already asserted themselves in the college planning process! The fact is the “light goes on” at different times for each student. While a few might be “chomping at the bit” to get started in 9th grade, most will start to recognize the need to get serious about college planning sometime during the second half of the Junior Year, a revelation that coincides with the heightened level of college talk among their peers.

The answer to the question about the “best time” to start planning, then, is: “When your student is ready, but no later than the start of the senior year.” In the meantime, focus on awareness. As you do, be careful not to give more energy than is necessary to the tactical elements of planning in the early years of high school. Your student needs to embrace that process in order for it to be productive. The last thing you want is for her/him to be resentful of your eagerness for getting started.

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