College Preparation Should Begin Early

Student with laptopPatti Pears

With thousands of colleges to choose from, coming up with a list of schools that match your child’s interests, strengths, and personality takes time. The best college is one that matches your teen’s academic, social, and financial needs. Waiting until your child is a senior in high school before starting to make plans for college can be a costly mistake. Here are a few suggestions to help make college more affordable:

Start career exploration early. According to national statistics, the majority of college students take over five years to earn a bachelor’s degree, often because they switch majors several times. I encourage your student, starting their freshman year in high school, to explore their academic interests and research career paths by job shadowing and volunteering in the community. By their junior year they should have narrowed down the list of possible majors, and can then search for colleges that offer those majors (such as by using College Board’s Big Future at

Take AP (Advanced Placement) courses or community college courses while still in high school. It is possible to earn enough credit to skip a semester or more of college – saving thousands of dollars.

Prepare for the ACT and SAT tests. Standardized test scores are a large factor for merit scholarships. I’ve seen students awarded thousands more in scholarships by just increasing their ACT score by 1 or 2 points (out of the 36 possible points). Juniors usually take the ACT and SAT in the spring to see which test they do better on. I recommend your student prepare for several weeks in advance by investing 20 or more hours studying, taking practice tests, and reviewing their incorrect answers before sitting for the official test. Free online test prep is offered at and


Younger students can improve their chances of testing well by reading every day (which improves their vocabulary, writing ability and reading speed, regardless of what they’re reading) and excelling in challenging math courses at school.


Keep up your GPA. Students earning the most competitive scholarships will usually have a GPA of 3.5 (out of 4.0) or higher and will have taken challenging coursework.

Research schools before you apply. Visit each college’s own website to get specifics on freshman retention rate, admissions criteria, and to take a virtual campus tour. Use the college’s Net Price Calculator to get an estimate of the cost of attendance for your child. Many families are surprised that private colleges can end up costing less than public ones once merit and need-based scholarships are applied. Compare college graduation rates before you apply.


Public colleges offering tuition discounts through WUE (Western Undergraduate Exchange) can be found at Be aware that the WUE tuition rate is not automatic – some colleges limit how many students receive WUE awards each year.

Apply early for scholarships and be aware of deadlines

Look for scholarships from the colleges you are applying to first because these scholarships are the largest and are often renewable for four years.


Many local scholarships can be found at starting December 1st. These scholarships are usually only valid for one year. Additionally, national scholarships can be found through search engines such as


The Free Application for Federal Aid (FAFSA), which is mandatory for need-based scholarships, becomes available January 1st and needs to be completed each year at


Patti Pears is a resident of Kaua’i and works as an Independent College Counselor. She can be reached at 808.634.9991 or