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College Planning 101: Tips and Advice for Teens and Parents

Which one? What will it cost? When should you start thinking about it? What does your child have to do to stand out? Relax: You're about to be schooled.

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High school seniors across Michigan nervously put the finishing touches on a bundle of information meant to capture the best parts of their lives. From academic performance to their pursuits outside of school, their very character will be crafted into a streamlined packet electronically submitted to institutions within the state and beyond. That's right: It's time to get in college applications.

Even if your child is years away from worrying about ACT scores and letters of recommendation, it's never too soon to start discussing the importance of higher education. And if your child is in high school, read closely. Understanding the college application process and choosing the right school can help you ease some of your child's fears (and your own!).

When do we start?

College readiness doesn't start in high school. Instead, college is the culmination of academic training in and out of the classroom that's been happening since you first sat your child in your lap to read stories together.

Express your interest in education (not necessarily school, but learning) when your child is young. Frequent trips to the library, snuggling up with a book together, asking questions while going on walks, volunteering in the classroom – all of these everyday activities will demonstrate to your child that learning is important to you, and that it should be for her, too. Talk to your child about why learning is exciting and listen when she wants to tell you about what interests her.

Once she enters school, encourage her to be an active learner, to ask questions in class and participate in classroom discussions. This foundation of talking about education will help you delve into more complex discussions about college readiness once your child nears the end of middle school and enters her high school years.

A real love of learning is something colleges look for in applicants, explains Don Dunbar, a former high school guidance counselor and now an educational consultant and author of What You Don't Know Can Keep You Out of College.

How can I help?

There's a fine line between walking your child through the application process and doing it for him. Researching colleges, filling out applications and studying for college entrance exams will take time, and your child may not understand at first just how much time he needs to put into the effort.

In the spring of your child's junior year in high school, he'll need to start getting serious about deciding which schools he's interested in. Applications become available over the summer months. Your child needs to fill out these applications carefully before submitting them electronically to the schools.

Some of the application information is easy to fill out, but other elements, like responses to questions and his essay, will take thought, planning and time to complete. Dunbar suggests setting aside an hour each week, once applications are available, to fill out the forms and work on college planning.

If your child has questions about applications, encourage him to find the answers himself. Charlene Rencher, dean of college counseling at Cranbrook Schools in Bloomfield Hills, advises, "The college admission officers like to hear from the students, not their parents." Many consider it a sign of your child's resourcefulness and independence – traits colleges hold in high regard.

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