A year-round college planning calendar for parents, students

By Nathaniel Sillin


Preparing your kids for college isn't just about the money you've put aside for tuition, room and board. It's about making deadlines, making the right choices and making sure your teen has the proper life and money skills to make college a success.

Consider a college-planning calendar you and your university-bound student can follow. Here are some seasonal activities to consider adding to yours:

Winter

No matter how you've prepared financially for your teen's college education, kick off the year with a visit to a qualified financial and tax professional. You might also consider paying for a separate advisory session for your teen so they know how to handle money before they leave for college. January is also a good month to learn about the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA (https://fafsa.ed.gov), as it's best to fill out the form right after Jan.1 to avoid missing out on available federal and state aid going into your teen's freshman year. That first FAFSA filing will give you an idea of what your Effective Family Contribution (EFC) will be.

Consult trusted friends and family members for their advice on affording college and strategies to secure grants and scholarships. Resources like FinAid.org and Edvisors.com are good resources for ways to afford college, but it also helps to have face-to-face expertise.

Start evaluating potential schools with your teen. The U.S. Department of Education's College Affordability and Transparency Center (http://college

cost.ed.gov) features a range of calculators and resources to help you narrow down school choices with the chance for your teen to secure the most scholarships and grants -- money that doesn't have to be paid back.

Spring

Springtime is a good season to start talking about summer jobs and internships (http://www.practicalmoneyskills.com/summerjob) that will make for a more attractive college application. Internship application periods may be year-round with many deadlines happening in the fall. If you are expecting your teen to contribute some part of their earnings or savings for future college costs, it's worthwhile to review earning, spending, budgeting, tax and savings fundamentals they'll need to manage money in school.

Also, if your teen hasn't been exposed to banking on a regular basis, it's time. Work with them to compare fees and services on various checking and savings accounts and consider whether it might be wise for you to bank with the same institution to allow for easier transfer of necessary funds from your account to theirs. Also encourage them to find an organized way of keeping track of their finances on paper, on computer or online (https://www.mint.com).

Summer

Summer is a time for fun, but it's also a good time to research potential schools and scholarship programs and even take a quick campus tour. The U.S. Department of Education's scholarship site (https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/types/grants-scholarships/finding-scholarships) offers basic guidance in finding such money and local companies and organizations‚ including places where your teen can work or intern -- may offer local awards.

If your teen is heading into their senior year, the fall is going to be busy. Get admissions test dates and college admissions deadlines down on your calendar as soon as possible. Also budget for college application fees as well as fees for admissions prep tests and the main SAT or ACT tests (more on that below) which may cost well in excess of $50 based on which test -- or tests -- your teen needs to take.

Fall

Fall is the season for college admissions tests, but for students with extra time before graduation, it's also the season for test prep (http://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/test-prep). Higher-scoring students on such achievement tests generally are in a better position for admissions or certain types of financial aid. High-school sophomores take the PSAT as a primary qualification for National Merit Scholarships, but it also gives an early indication of how students may do during their junior year on their ACT or SAT test, whichever they are encouraged to take. Get your student to check directly with the colleges of their choice to see which tests they require.

Finally, the closer your teen gets to freshman year, the more specific the dates on the calendar become. For college-bound seniors, fall is the time for narrowing down college choices after visits, interviews or auditions so applications can be sent. Once acceptance letters arrive, it's time for parents and teens to evaluate financial aid packages.

Bottom line: Creating a college-planning calendar can help you and your teen target desired schools, learn about money management and break down funding obstacles. Set it up as early as possible.

Nathaniel Sillin directs Visa's financial education programs.