Used to be that high school seniors could wait until late in the school year before deciding where to go to college. That’s what I did, anyway.
I had been accepted at a college about midway through my 12th grade year. I had financial aid worked out and had met professors during visits to the school. Then, I took a visit with friends to Radford University, mainly as a way to get a day off from high school, and I fell hard. I loved the campus and the fact that the university was growing.
I applied, got accepted — about two weeks before my high school graduation.
Granted, that was back in the days when only three “Star Wars” movies existed, so we’re talking a really long time ago. Still, having a chance to change my mind at the last possible minute changed my life for the better.
Having said that, kids, don’t do what I did. These days, getting into a first-choice college can be a stressful, multi-year effort for students and families. With spring nearly here, options are limited for seniors who might just now be deciding that they want to go to college.
Limited, but not non-existent. If your child wants to go to college in the fall but hasn’t yet applied, there’s still time. Many universities have rolling admissions, which means application deadlines are moving targets. Community colleges are always accepting new students. Smaller schools, even prestigious colleges, might have openings for new students.
“It’s not too late,” said Tammy Heft, guidance counselor at Christiansburg High School, although she did add that my successful late application to college “is probably not the first thing I’d recommend.”
The first thing a late-deciding students should do is talk with their high school guidance counselor. (“That’s my bottom line for everything,” Heft said.) Students need to find out which schools are still accepting students, fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid form (known as the FAFSA), get their school transcripts together and get started on other paperwork needed for college applications.
Not only are some colleges still accepting students, they might have scholarship money available, Heft said.
Bethany Webb, a career coach who is an employee of New River Community College and is based at Christiansburg High, made a pitch for community colleges especially for students who might be torn between going to work after high school or going to college.
“Local community colleges have great resources and workforce training,” Webb said. “If a student is uncertain about what to do, college or workforce, there are still options.”
Spending a year or two at a community college also gives a student time to consider transferring to another school, said Kayla St. Clair, associate director of Virginia Tech’s Office of Undergraduate Admissions. She said that students should begin researching transfer requirements available online (the Tech site for transferring students is at https://vt.edu/admissions/transfer). Tech typically requires that a student spend one year at another college before transferring.
“That way, students can decide what kind of experience they want, and what type of institution they want before investigating the transfer route,” said St. Clair, who herself transferred to Virginia Tech after spending a year and a half at Virginia Western Community College following her graduation from Salem High School.
St. Clair said about 20% of a typical Virginia Tech graduating class transferred from other places. Tech enrolls about 1,000 transfer students each year.
“There’s no shame in starting somewhere else and then transferring,” St. Clair said. “It’s just a different pathway.”
Even if a student has been accepted by a college, plenty of work still needs to be done this spring. The same things mentioned in this column — FAFSA forms, transcripts, references — must be completed soon. Plus, we all know that the pandemic has made this a very weird year for students. An already stressful senior year has been made much more complicated by COVID-related disruptions.
Students who might have naturally come down with a case of senioritis might now have complications from COVID-itis, as the pandemic adds to normal stress and wears out children mentally.
“I know some students who are very capable, very on top of things, who have just shut down,” Heft said. “It’s my job to rein ‘em in. They still have to finish strong.”
In other words, even an honor roll student who was accepted by a top-rated school months ago can botch things up in the homestretch.
Heft said admissions office employees often call to tell her about students who are in danger of not only losing a scholarship, but also of having their acceptance revoked.
“And that’s in a normal year,” Heft said.
During a pandemic-disrupted year, parents and families might have to do more work to make sure their seniors are doing what needs to be done to have a successful completion to the school year.
Sometimes, even the best students have more work to do to prepare for college. If a student had dual enrollment at a college and received college credits while in high school, they need to make sure those community college transcripts are sent to their new school.
In summary, just because a high school senior hasn’t applied to college yet doesn’t mean they can’t get in, and just because a student was accepted by a university last fall doesn’t mean they can’t screw things up.
“Don’t leave high school without a plan for what you want to do,” Webb urged. “We don’t want to see students leaving and floundering. We want them to get where they want to go.”
Many universities have rolling admissions, which means application deadlines are moving targets.