Column: College planning now may mean less stress for seniors come fall

Editor’s Note: As summer gets underway, rising seniors may want to think about getting a jump start on college planning. School counselors like Shondra Carpenter say for students interested in going to college, understanding a few of the changes in the application process, including the new FAFSA and portfolio-based Coalition Application, may be useful.

Carpenter has been a high school counselor in Colorado for 14 years and also runs a college admissions’ consultant business. She shares how she wants the class of 2017 and their families to think about getting an early start on college applications in order to lessen some of the stress that may come later.

As the 2015-2016 school year came to a close, I couldn’t help but consider the relevance of Charles Dickens’ opening lines from “A Tale of Two Cities.” It was the best of times when I saw my students achieve their goal of high school graduation and watched them bask in completion of their AP & IB exams. It also felt like the worst of times when I thought of my rising seniors and the number of changes in the world of college admissions they will soon encounter this fall.

While change can be good, never before have I seen so many in the college application process implemented all at once. When I first became a high school counselor in 2002, students were likely to apply to no more than three schools on average, and the applications and recommendations were completed on paper. Yes, paper!teacherslounge

Students took the ACT or SAT, submitted the FAFSA in January, and waited until the spring for decisions to be made. With the ease of everything online now, I see a much larger number of schools that students are sending their applications to, upwards of 10 to even 15 or more. Our school record this year was 22 applications. With so many options available, it is important that I guide my students accurately and keep them informed throughout the entire process.

Counselors across the country are bracing for these changes in order to best support our rising seniors. Here are several significant modifications in the college admissions process for the class of 2017:

The FAFSA. Prior to the 2016-2017 cycle, the FAFSA was available beginning Jan. 1 of a student’s senior year. It will now be available Oct. 1, 2016. While there are no changes to the 2017-2017 FAFSA itself, this new timeline is a momentous shift. Recent data from the Department of Education suggested that providing income and tax information earlier in the admissions process could benefit students. I’m a big fan of this change, as all too often families have needed to make substantial financial decisions about college within a very small timeframe. It compounded nerves in an already unnerving process.

College applications have undergone changes themselves. For the first time–using the Common Application–student accounts will roll over, which means that students can begin working on their application earlier than their senior year. Essay prompts did not change for 2016-2017. This is a distinct advantage for students who want to be proactive over the summer of 2016.

At a time when it seems we are wanting students to be less stressed, working on college applications over the summer is a wise decision. During the junior year at my school, we afford students the opportunity for self-reflection, using prompts similar to the Common App. Many students thank us for allowing that time for self-reflection early rather than when they were “knee-deep” in the application process in the fall of their senior year.

There’s also the new Coalition Application. It’s currently supported by some 90 colleges and universities with a goal of making college more affordable and accessible for all students. Students applying to these institutions can create their Coalition account early, which will give them access to a virtual “locker” where they can store information and/or artifacts for access when ready to apply to college. For example, an essay that a student wishes to highlight or a body of work done in an art class or a document highlighting a student’s extracurricular activities can all be stored in their virtual locker. Three rules are in place for a college to become a Coalition member: The college must have at least a 70 percent graduation rate after six years; they must meet all demonstrated need for low-income students; and if public, they must have affordable in-state costs.

And of course, there’s the New SAT. The redesigned SAT test is said to better reflect the kind of reading and math students will encounter in college and work. The SAT essay is also now optional. The vast majority of colleges will accept both old and new SAT scores in the coming years. I advise my students to take their PSAT and Practice ACT scores seriously, as they provide tremendous insight as to how they will do on the SAT and ACT.

Ready or not, change is happening in the world of college admissions. At my school, our rising seniors took on the class nickname of “Lucky” as freshmen. With a little bit of luck, and some thoughtful discussions about these changes, the class of 2017 will have a great year ahead of them.