Study Prep: Getting Your Kids Ready for College back in the US [Updated]

August 2, 2017 § 1 Comment

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[This is a new version of a post I wrote two years ago, including updated links and FAFSA information]

Now that your kids’ school year has started, it’s time to take in a big breath, let it out slowly . . . and start thinking about graduation. Ready or not, college is just around the corner.

Hear that sound? Listen closely. It’s the sound of time marching by.

While we can’t slow down the passage of time, we can prepare ourselves, and our children for what lies ahead. And if relocating to the US for college is part of your child’s future, then take a look at these tips for getting ready. They’re based on my experience sending two children back to the States for college while we were overseas, putting two into high school in the US (after home schooling and having them attend school abroad), and working in a university admissions office. Do you have anything to add? Let me know in the comments.

  1. Academics
    Before your child begins high school (or as soon as possible thereafter), find out the college-prep requirements and recommendations for the state in which she plans to continue her education. Each state will have its own list of required coursework for entrance into its public institutions, with courses in English, math, science, social studies, and fine arts. The list may also include classes in such areas as foreign language or personal finance. You’ll also want to check with individual colleges, public and private, to find out what additions or exceptions their requirements might have in comparison to the state’s core curriculum.
  2. Homeschoolers
    Most colleges welcome the addition of home-schooled students to their campuses, but homeschoolers will want to find out what documentation is needed and any hoops that they might need to jump through for admission. Students with diplomas from unaccredited high schools may have additional requirements, as well. Also, if students will be transferring to a Stateside high school before graduating, make sure you know the school’s policy on what courses they will give credit for towards graduation.
  3. AP
    For students taking AP (Advanced Placement) courses, check with potential colleges to see what level of test scores they accept. Also, find out if successful completion of an AP course will earn advanced placement (taking the place of a college-level course), credit (hours toward graduation), or both. While you’re at it, see if the school will allow a bilingual child to test out of foreign-language courses. This may or may not be part of CLEP (College Level Examination Program) testing. Testing out of classes not only can help meet degree requirements but can also be an easy way to add a minor.
  4. PSAT/NMSQT
    Students can take the PSAT/NMSQT (Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test), during their junior year. The test, from the College Board, is used for awarding National Merit Scholarships. High-scoring students who receive semifinalist status can apply to be finalists. Interested students outside the US can get more information at the “International Student” page. Schools in your area may also offer the PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9 as practice tests for younger students. After completing a test, students who are at least 13 years old can link their scores to Khan Academy for personalized practice.
  5. SAT and ACT
    While some institutions don’t require SAT or ACT scores, the majority do. But which one should your child take? There are differences between the two exams. For instance, the SAT emphasizes vocabulary more than the ACT, and the ACT has a science section while the SAT does not. Other differences are more subtle. For a helpful comparison of the tests, see “The SAT vs. the ACT,” from The Princeton Review. You can find international test centers for the SAT here and ACT’s international sites here. Contact your target schools to see if they “superscore.” Superscoring combines section subscores from two or more test dates, using the highest from each section instead of using only the scores from one date.
  6. Deadlines
    Don’t forget to keep track of deadlines: deadlines for submitting university and scholarship applications, for filling out housing contracts, for making payments or setting up payment plans, etc. Check early, as some will be much sooner than you might think.
  7. FAFSA
    Another big deadline is for filing out the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid), found at fafsa.ed.gov. The FAFSA is used to determine how much a family is expected to contribute to a student’s college education and, thus, how much will be offered in financial aid and loans. (The FAFSA applies only to US citizens and permanent residents.) Results are reported to up to 10 colleges at a time. The application period opens October 1 for the following school year, and students report income information from the previous year. (This is a change that started with the 2017-18 FASFA. Previously, applicants had to wait until the following January 1 to apply.) Each state has its own deadlines, including dates for priority consideration, which can be found here. Individual colleges may have earlier deadlines, as well. Even if students know that their family won’t qualify for federal or state financial aid, they should submit the FAFSA anyway, as it is often used for scholarship selection. It is important to remember that filling out the FAFSA is free, so if a site asks for payment, it’s not the official FAFSA.
  8. Scholarships
    When it comes to scholarships, there are those offered by individual colleges, and there are many, many more out there that are looking for qualified recipients. Some students treat scholarship application as if it were a job, and it can pay very well, with funds adding up well beyond the cost of school. For reviews on five top scholarship websites, take a look at Blake Sander’s article at MoneySavingPro. Remember that any scholarship or grant money that goes beyond paying qualified education expenses (tuition, fees, and books, but not room and board) is considered taxable.
  9. Transcripts
    Students will need to submit high-school transcripts to colleges as part of the admission process. For most schools, the transcripts will need to arrive in a sealed envelope from the high school in order to be considered official. Some will accept faxed copies from the high school. Foreign transcripts that are not from US accredited schools will need to be evaluated for authenticity, for diploma validation, and for determining a US GPA equivalent. Some colleges will do this in house, while others will require you to send the transcript to a third-party evaluation agency. If the transcript isn’t in English, it may be necessary to have it translated, as well.
  10. Campus visits
    Many colleges offer online virtual tours to help you get a good feel for their campus. Go to the institution’s web site, or see if your school has an online tour linked at CampusTours. When you’re in the States, it’s beneficial to have an in-person visit. If you give a school enough notice before you arrive, they should be able to arrange a tour for you.
  11. In-state tuition
    Back to finances: One of the biggest concerns for out-of-country parents is the issue of in-state tuition for public schools. Even if you’ve previously lived in a state your whole life, the fact that you don’t now means that your child will have to prove he deserves in-state status. The final decision will come from the university, and it will depend on such things as parents’ owning a house there (though that by itself is not enough), living there for a number of years, having ties to the state and other factors that show a probability the student will remain there after graduation, filing state income tax, registering a vehicle, registering to vote, having a library card, etc. Schools have widely varying rules on how students can gain in-state status on their own, such as living in the state as a financially independent adult for a period of time. Some schools offer in-state rates to children of alums or to residents of neighboring states or states with regional student exchanges. Words such as dependentresident, home, and domicile are important to define. (Hint: They may not mean what you think they mean.)
  12. Admissions office
    Make a friend in the admissions office of the colleges you’re serious about, someone you can email, or call, to get answers to your questions. You might get in touch with someone in international admissions, as well, for help with issues that are unique to students living outside the US.
  13. FERPA
    Understand that even if you want to stay in control of your child’s education, you will be limited in the information you can get from the school once he is accepted. Under FERPA (Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act), the college cannot give you such things as grades, class schedule, or billing information without the student’s written consent—even if you’re the one paying the bills.
  14. Orientation
    Make plans for your child to arrive in the US in time for student orientation. The earlier she enrolls, the more classes will be available for filling out her schedule. Orientation is a good time for parents, if you’re able to come, to hear first-hand the details of college life. It’s also good time for releasing your child toward independence. (That’s why you’ll probably be sent to a different room while your child picks classes.) Many schools offer priority (early) orientation for certain categories of students (for example, honors students and student athletes).
  15. On campus
    You’ll want your children to find community when they relocate. Some campuses will have a residence hall set aside for honors students or a floor designated for students with common educational interests. You can contact local churches and campus ministries (some of which will offer housing). Maybe there’s a Mu Kappa chapter (for missionary kids) on campus. Or maybe the school has a recognized group for Third Culture Kids (TCKs). International student clubs may offer a good fit as well.
  16. Transition
    Our two sons who came back to the US for college while we were overseas attended reentry programs. These were very valuable in helping them understand the transitions they were facing and giving them practical advice for acclimating to US culture. The two seminars we used are sponsored by Barnabas International (they also offer one in partnership with the Narramore Christian Foundation) and Interaction International. For help in understanding the TCK mindset and how to navigate cultural changes, get a copy of Third Culture Kids: Growing Up among Worlds (by David Pollock and Ruth Van Reken) or The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition (by Tina Quick).

The kids really are growing up. It’s never too early to get ready. Hear that sound?

[photo: “Campus Fall 2013 28,” by David Goehring, used under a Creative Commons license]

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