Florida is home to some of the largest universities in the country. U.S. News & World Report ranked the University of Central Florida as the largest with 52,532 undergraduate students enrolled for the 2014-15 school year. In the same report, Florida International University in Miami ranked sixth.
In its listing of top regional colleges, U.S. News & World Report listed Rollins College in Winter Park as the No. 1 college for the southern region along with one other school. UCF ranked 168th for national universities, tying with six other schools.
With numbers like this, it’s easy to see why families with teens need to prepare themselves for college.
Scholarships on the Brain
Jill Mollenhauer, a junior and senior language arts teacher at Boone High School, has helped many students work toward college during her 16 years as an educator. She suggests that students begin to build their high school resumes during their freshmen year so they stand out when it’s time to apply for college.
“Bright Futures scholarships look at a student’s GPA beginning in ninth grade, among many other things,” Mollenhauer says. “A lot of families looking to maximize financial resources find it advantageous to fulfill many of the Bright Futures requirements.”
Florida Bright Futures awards scholarships to students who have a 3.0 or 3.5 weighted GPA, depending on the type of scholarship they are applying for. SAT and ACT scores as well as community service hours also figure into a student’s eligibility for these scholarships. Award amounts vary with the highest for the 2016-17 school year being $103 per four-year college credit, per semester.
While a student may not be preparing for their college career as early as their freshman year, the sophomore and junior years are very important, according to Mollenhauer. Although senior year grades, activities and conduct will play a part in college admissions, many of those final grades and reports will not be available during the application process.
Grabbing the Attention of Colleges
Last year, Orange County Public Schools began a pilot program with Kahn Academy to help students prepare for college. Materials and SAT prep tools are easily accessible and free on the school website. Mollenhauer says the feedback from students, teachers and parents has been extremely positive for the new initiative.
While access to these tools is helpful, some students and their families may determine they want or need more help. In this case, private tutors, prep books and tutoring programs have proven useful in helping students prepare for SAT exams.
“Again, SAT is important, as is GPA, but because colleges are becoming increasingly competitive, students need to be diverse, not only in terms of culture but in academics as well,” Mollenhauer says.
That does not mean a student who performs poorly will be accepted just because they have an interesting backstory. Mollenhauer says colleges seek well-rounded and academically or athletically skilled students.
Windermere Preparatory School’s Director of Guidance and College Planning Debra Santostefano agrees, adding that a student’s level of commitment and involvement in school is also important to college admissions. Joining clubs and participating in sports is a good idea for students who want to get the attention of highly selective colleges.
However, she warns, the quantity of the clubs, honor societies, activities and sports is less important than the student’s quality of involvement. Colleges know that a student’s time is finite and if he or she is in 10 clubs, their involvement must be minimal.
“Colleges are interested in seeing commitment, perseverance and leadership, so being an elected officer or team captain is much more impressive than being a member of a club or team,” Santostefano says.
Don’t Miss the Deadline
At Windermere Prep, students have access to college counselors and routinely have visits from more than 100 college representatives per school year. OCPS schools have several college and career preparation departments.
All students are encouraged to use the expertise of these college counselors to learn about how to prepare and what to expect when applying to colleges. In particular, they can help with understanding the application process.
Always start with a financial aid application because it is required for scholarship eligibility. Santostefano also points out that colleges have different thresholds for identifying financial need. A family may not qualify for financial need at one school, but they could at another.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid is a federally funded financial aid program that gives students access to grants, loans and other funds for college. The application becomes available in October of a student’s senior year. Pay close attention to the college, state and federal deadlines listed on the FAFSA website so you don’t leave money on the table.
As for admissions, some students start applying for admissions as early as August for the following school year. At most colleges, the final admissions deadline for the spring 2017 semester is in October and November. Some are as late as December.
In the end, students struggling with how to prepare for college would do well to heed Santostefano’s sage advice.
“The bottom line [in preparing for college] is truly, always challenge yourself,” she says. “Take the most rigorous courses available to you where you will do well, and be engaged in your high school community based on your interests and skills. Then seek colleges that fit you. Don’t try to mold yourself to a college.”
College Prep Checklist
Maria Guthrie, co-owner of The College Map along with Julie Mitchell, has built a career centered on helping students prepare for college.
“I think many parents struggle the most with how to manage the process, motivate their children and develop a plan to navigate this already stressful process,” Guthrie says. “At The College Map, we provide our families with direction for these and other questions beginning with students as early as rising high school freshmen.”
Through the company’s Track It! curriculum, Guthrie and Mitchell provide valuable framework for parents and students that includes a timeline with important milestones like the ones below.
College visits: Begin as early as freshmen year to explore a school’s environment and structure. This will help you determine which school has what you need to succeed.
ACT/SAT exams*: Begin taking these tests in your junior year to lock in your scores in time to meet college application deadlines.
FAFSA application: This application will be available in October of your senior year.
College applications: Start filling out college applications the summer before or at the very beginning of your senior year. Consider applying to at least nine schools: three likely, three probable, three reach and maybe a few wildcards.
Official transcript copies*: Make arrangements for official transcripts to be sent to the schools you’re applying for as soon as you submit your applications.
Letters of recommendation: If these are needed, ask teachers, coaches or administrators in the summer before your senior year or during the first few weeks of school.
*Colleges will not review an application until official copies of transcripts and test scores have been received.