Navigating a family’s first senior year

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This week, the Cranston Public Schools started the new school year, and therefore, Tuesday was our last “first day of school” for our oldest daughter, Caroline, as she begins her senior year. Our other daughters, Elizabeth and Alexandra, are starting freshman year and seventh grade respectively. It began the last year that all of our girls would be classified together as “school-aged,” and all be in the Cranston Public Schools at the same time.

As parents, we are embarking on uncharted territory as we navigate through the next nine months of senior year. Caroline’s first day of Kindergarten in 2005 seems to be just a few blinks back in time, rather than 12 years ago. It’s so cliché, but yet so true. Time truly does fly by.

As an education reporter here in Cranston for nearly a decade now, I have had the good fortune of learning a great deal about this process early on, long before I even needed to know it. I have covered various workshops and speaking events, hearing from financial advisors, guidance counselors, parents and even from newly-minted college freshmen who have returned to their high school to pass along to the current seniors all that they’ve discovered during their first semester of college. I have tried to commit the things I’ve learned to memory; tried to do everything they’ve said to do, so that I’d be ready when the time came.

The time is now.

 “Be prepared,” they said.

“Start early,” they said.

“Keep track of everything they do,” they said.

“Don’t rule out a school just based on price,” they said.

“Apply for lots of scholarships,” they said. “And then apply for lots more.”

The words of advice echoed in my head over the years as time passed by.

Everyone all along the way has said to start early, no matter what event or presentation I covered, no matter whom I listened to. However, “early” is all a matter of perspective, and I read some recommendations online of starting the college exploration process as early as middle school. We did not start that early. To us, that was just too early.

During sophomore year, I took some time to educate myself as a parent as to what we were looking for when looking at colleges, whether it was campus life, tuition and fees, amount of financial aid typically given, or how long it takes a student to graduate (four years is less the norm than five or six, or so it seems). A lot has changed in the past 25 or so years since our time in college, namely, the Internet. Having Internet capabilities makes the college search process completely different and much easier, although still very overwhelming. When we applied to colleges there was no “Common App,” which allows you to apply for many colleges at once with just one application and the click of a button, so I downloaded that application and looked to see what was on it, what it entailed. There were also no “test optional schools,” at the time we went to college; schools which de-emphasize the SAT/ACT tests and take into account more of the whole student, rather than test scores alone. I downloaded that list as well. Although we knew she’d probably be applying to at least some schools that do require the SAT, we wanted to keep all her options open and be as informed as we could be.

After the conclusion of sophomore year, we began the college exploration process with our daughter, and I am so glad we did. Starting prior to junior year seemed early to Caroline, but at the end of junior year she was also glad to be very far along in the process, and almost done, rather than just starting it. While we knew that she had very little idea as to what she was looking for, or what she wanted to do as far as a college major, we also knew she wouldn’t be able to figure that out without getting a little exposure to all of that first.

We first paid a visit to the free College Planning Center housed at the Warwick Mall and received a timeline and some advice to guide us in the process, from a counselor there. We then spent the summer before junior year taking her to just a few schools- rural and then urban, both public and private, colleges and universities, a school where almost everyone lives on campus all four years and then a school where the majority of people commute. As we went along, she started to identify things she liked in a school and the things she didn’t like, as well as how far away or how close by she hoped to be, and with that she could rule things in or out as we went further along in the process.

We had her start a digital resume, a portfolio of sorts, in order to keep her activities and accomplishments organized. Staying organized with the kids’ activities and accomplishments early on in the process was something I’d heard over and over again, and I’d personally kept a list of things the kids had been doing over time. Now that the first half of high school was over for her, it was time for her to take command of that organizational piece herself. What I had started was a way for her to jump-start the process, but it was now in her hands. The link to this digital piece would be able to be attached to the Common Application, and to individual school applications that did not use the Common Application as well.

As junior year began, a fall college fair helped to narrow down our list of schools to explore even further, and another year of high school courses helped Caroline to hone in on her interests as far as majors and minors go, a little bit more, although she’s been trying to choose schools that have her particular interests and then a lot of other choices as well, in case she changes her mind once she’s enrolled somewhere. We spent the fall months visiting a few schools for scheduled campus open houses and then took the winter off completely. We picked up again with college tours over April vacation, visiting a few in New York City over the school vacation week and then took a break again until the summer. We visited the last three over the summer months, prior to the start of senior year, and we were done with all first-time visits and tours by the end of August.

Many of the very first schools we had taken her to during those initial weeks after sophomore year ended were not even on the final list, but had been key in helping her narrow her search down. Her digital resume is up to date as the new school year begins, and she’s got a list of five or six schools she would like to apply to, as well as a top favorite she hopes she’ll get into when the time comes.

We are now standing on the doorstep of the next part of the process, ready to venture on in. It’s officially Senior Year. She is officially what’s called a “Rising Senior,” a term that’s new to me, but seems appropriate. Application essays are in the works, she’s thought about letters of recommendation and she’s applied for a scholarship or two already. As parents, we are aware that the FASFA financial aid application looms ahead and we are as ready to start that process as I guess we can be. We are about as ready for the next nine months from the first day of school this week, through graduation day in June, as we can be. It does not escape me as a mother, that nearly eighteen years ago, nine months of waiting through my pregnancy with Caroline had an entirely different meaning for us than it does now. Those nine months flew by as we experienced that journey, and I’m sure these next nine months will as well, as we navigate and experience this next part of the parenting journey.

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