Start Putting Together Your College Plan Now With This High School Checklist

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The school year is just underway. While getting used to new classes, teachers, books and more, high school students are also on their way to attaining their high school degree and looking onward to college. Many students and families don’t start thinking about college until their junior or senior years. But for those families who put college on their radar earlier, preparing and succeeding with college applications becomes much more likely.

Iowa College Aid’s “Your Course to College” is designed for families of high schoolers, both current and incoming, who are looking to understand the steps necessary to apply for and succeed in college planning. This year’s guide is available for order or download now at Iowa College Aid’s site. To highlight the new edition, here’s a look at a high school checklist, included in “Your Course to College,” which helps students and families get an overview of how they can prepare for college each year of high school.

Three students studying and learning in a coffee shop

Freshman Year

Meet your counselor. They want to help you succeed in high school and set you up for success after graduation. Arrange a meeting to talk about your plans.

Get involved. Many college admissions officers look for well-rounded students who are involved in their schools and communities.

Set up a college savings account or continue to add to an existing account. College Savings Iowa is sponsored by the State of Iowa and can be started with as little as $25. Find more information at collegesavingsiowa.com.

Choose the right class schedule. Research admissions requirements for the colleges in which you are interested.

Find out about Advanced Placement (AP) and other honors-level courses. If your high school does not offer AP courses directly, it might provide online access to courses through the Iowa Online AP Academy.

Fill your summer with volunteer and work opportunities to get a better idea of the careers you might like to pursue. Check out volunteeriowa.org to find organizations seeking volunteers.

Sophomore Year

Check in with your counselor. Ask about prerequisites you might need to take now to prepare for advanced courses in your junior and senior years.

Investigate concurrent enrollment for your junior and senior years. Concurrent, or dual, enrollment lets you take college-credit courses in high school.

Keep your grades up. Stay focused on schoolwork. Colleges will look at the grades from more than just your junior and senior years.

Take the PSAT in October. It’s good practice for taking the PSAT in your junior year, when the scores will determine National Merit Scholarship qualification.

Research financial aid options and begin searching for scholarships. Make a list of those you might be eligible for, and take note of deadlines.

Stay involved. Admissions officers like students who keep up with activities throughout high school, instead of starting them at college application time.

Start attending college fairs and arranging college visits. Call ahead to schedule appointments with financial aid and admissions offices.

Junior Year

Prep for college entrance exams. Download a free ACT preparation booklet from act.org. Find free official test prep for the SAT through the College Board at collegeboard.org and Khan Academy at khanacademy.org/sat. Take practice tests to determine where you might need to improve.

Focus on career and college research. Assess your skills and interests so you can consider possible areas of study. Determine which colleges offer programs that can prepare you for the career you want.

Take the PSAT in the fall to be considered for a National Merit Scholarship. Plus, it’s good practice for the SAT.

Continue college fairs and campus visits. If possible, sit in on classes that interest you and arrange to spend time in student housing.

Take the SAT or ACT in the spring and have the official scores sent to schools that interest you.

Ask for letters of recommendation. Identify teachers, counselors, employers or other adults who can attest to your achievement and abilities, and ask them to write letters for scholarship or admissions applications.

Make a timeline for your college and scholarship applications. Research deadlines now so you won’t be rushed when applications are due. Pay close attention to early decision deadlines if that option interests you.

Fill out the FAFSA4caster at fafsa.ed.gov to get an idea of how much need-based federal aid you might receive.

Senior Year

Review coursework with your school counselor to be sure you have taken (or are scheduled to take) all the courses you need for your preferred colleges.

If you plan to take the ACT or SAT again, register for a date at least two months before the application deadlines for all the colleges and scholarships you are considering.

Prepare a final list of colleges and submit admission applications. Most early decision and early-action college applications are due October 1.

Complete and submit the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) at fafsa.gov as soon after October 1 as possible. Check with your schools of interest for their priority deadlines.

Ask your high school to send your official transcripts to the colleges where you are applying.

Compare acceptance letters and financial aid awards. Upon admittance, each college or university listed on your FAFSA will send you an award letter that shows the aid you are eligible to receive.

Take AP exams for any AP subjects you studied in high school. Some colleges might award college credit based on your exam score. Go to collegeboard.org for AP exam information.

Decision time! Choose your college and notify them by mailing your commitment deposit check.


Need Help With Summer Transition? These Resources Can Help

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For students making the transition from high school to college, nagging questions can turn into doubts. Left unchecked, those doubts can turn into the dreaded “summer melt,” where students who accept an offer to attend college don’t manage to make it to campus in the fall, for whatever reasons.

Those reasons can be abundant: From financial concerns and fears about academics to feeling overwhelmed by a larger campus or not knowing how and when to turn in housing applications, there are as many pitfalls for students transitioning to college as… well, there are students heading to college.

If you’re a student heading to college this fall, don’t let the changes ahead psych you out and take you off your game. College is an exciting time with new opportunities and there are many resources for helping with those questions and concerns you might have as you get ready to walk on to your new campus.

Here are some great places to look for answers, support and a confidence boost this summer:

Your College’s Financial Aid and Admissions Offices

Many students feel that once they’ve been accepted to a college that their next interaction with the school shouldn’t come until the fall. The truth is that financial aid and admissions offices are the perfect place to answer questions about tuition, fees, student aid, housing deadlines and more. Much of this will be covered at orientation (make sure that you sign up for it!), but if you have questions before then, a call to your school’s office can lead to a quick answer before it becomes a big issue.

Your College’s Student Organizations

Just as the school’s financial aid and admissions offices want to see prospective students succeed, so to do student organizations. Even though the school year is over, many organizations are already working to help embrace a new class of students, engaging in their community and working to make the transition to college easier. First-Generation students can especially look to these groups for support, advice and a chance to meet new people before even getting to campus. Having a familiar face when you get there makes the move to college that much easier.

Local Colleges

Many of the questions and concerns that students have during their summer transition aren’t unique to a particular campus. For more general questions, you can always call a local college to get insight to other resources or advice on how to move forward in the fall.

Local Organizations

Iowa College Aid’s “Course to College” program works to build community engagement in many towns throughout the state. That means that you may have a local organization in your own backyard that’s looking to help students making the transition from high school to college. Even if there isn’t a group in your town, reach out to local organizations such as United Way, your church or even a mentor or friend who has made the transition to college before you. They’re advice may have more in common with your concerns than you think.

Our Website 

Iowa College Aid’s website offers advice and answers for students facing any number of issues heading to college. From our blog to our video gallery, we can help students feel a little more secure about what awaits them in the fall.

Your Course to College

Iowa College Aid’s annual guide to preparing for, and succeeding in, college offers guidance of the steps that students can take before getting to school. More than that, the guide offers advice from college students on what to expect, as well as an example of average college student’s daily schedule. Getting a heads-up and hearing first-hand from other students can make a big difference in a student’s confidence.

Knowing How to Avoid Summer Melt Can Help Meet Your Academic Goals

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For many, summer vacation is the reward for a year of hard work and dedication in the classroom. But for those moving from high school to college, the months between graduation and arriving on campus can be fraught with challenges and distractions that can lead to students not completing their college goals.

“Summer melt” is the name given to those students who, for whatever reason, apply to a college, accept admission, but never arrive after high school graduation. There are many factors that can drive a student toward summer melt. Being aware of a few of those, and taking the steps to stay focused on the college path, can help make sure that the only thing that melts this summer is your ice cream!


Keep in touch with Counselors and Reach out to College Advisers

School counselors are there to help when challenges arise. Before graduation, students should ask high school counselors what resources are available to them in the summer. Need a helpful boost or reminder of why it’s important to get to college? Give your counselor a call!

Colleges are also looking to help students stay on track during the summer transition, many schools can reach out to students by text and email to make sure that the important dates during the summer transition aren’t missed.

Find a Mentor

It’s always easier to tackle a new challenge if you’ve spoken to someone who’s been through it. Community groups, schools and other non-profits offer mentors who can talk to students about the transition to college. But it can be as easy as talking to anyone you know who’s either in or graduated from college. Don’t be afraid to bring up your concerns about the transition when talking to a mentor. These relationships can last beyond the transition to freshman year and can offer a resource for support both in school and down the road. To hear some advice from first-generation students about making the move to college, check out our video “What I Wish Someone Had Told Me.”

Visit the College Website

Your school’s website is a great resource to answer questions you might have before starting school. Everything from student life, financial issues, academics, organizations and more can be found on a school’s website. Take some time to review the website, even before your student orientation. You’ll have a level of expertise that will make the transition to college that much easier.

Look into Placement Testing Before Orientation

Most schools have some sort of placement testing for incoming first-year students. These tests help gauge where students are in math, reading, and writing skills and makes sure students are taking the courses appropriate for their level of understanding in each subject. Some colleges will offer these tests at orientation, others require students to do them online or on-campus before fall semester starts. Students should make sure to contact the college to know when they need to take the tests.

Check College Health Insurance Plans

Many colleges have health insurance plans for students. Students should check their college’s requirements early to see whether it is affordable. Sometimes, colleges will automatically enroll students in the college’s health care plan. If a student already has qualifying insurance, they can usually apply for a waiver. To learn more about transitioning healthcare for students after high school, read the healthcare guide.

Take the time to emotionally prepare

No matter how much you prepare, college is a big change for many people. Whether you’re travelling far away or staying close to home, college is a major step into adulthood, complete with personal responsibilities that may not have been part of your high school routine. The stress of that change can have negative effects, with many freshmen citing it as a reason for dropping out during their freshman year.

If you’re leaving home, take the time to get you (and your family) used to the idea of you not being there every day. And if you’re staying closer to home, start identifying the people you can lean on in times of stress or the ways that you can deal with the pressures of school in a positive way.

Believe in Yourself

The best support students can find to stay on path to college is themselves. Remember: You’ve done the hard part and gained acceptance to college. Your dream of an education, as well as the career and life that comes with it is in your reach. But you can’t get your degree if you don’t show up.

For more tips and advice for planning for, getting to and succeeding in college, check out Iowa College Aid’s Your Course to College.

Use Summer to Your Advantage to Save on College Costs

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The snow coats are finally put away in place of the short-sleeve shirts. Spring is here, with summer right behind. For high school seniors, the end of years of hard work are within your grasp with the goal of a college education just beyond it. But rather than coasting to the finish line, students looking to save money and hit the ground running once they get to college will find the next few months important.


“Summer melt” is the term used in higher education to describe students that intend to go to college after high school graduation, but never make it to college in the fall. Their college plans have dripped away like an ice cream cone in the July heat. Here are some tips to stay on track and keep those college plans firm this summer, and even saving a few dollars once you get there:

  1. Don’t fall victim to “senioritis.” The end of high school is certainly in reach, but that doesn’t mean students should take their foot off the pedal when it comes to school. Completing AP or dual enrollment courses in high school can reduce the number of credits that need to be taken in college. Think of it as getting free classes that would otherwise be part of tuition costs.
  2. Plan ahead to avoid changing majors. It’s not out of the ordinary for students to get to college not knowing exactly what they want to do. But changing majors, even once, can add a year or more to a student’s time in college. Use this summer to explore areas of career interest as a volunteer or intern to get a taste of what the day-to-day life in a particular job will be like. It might lead to reconsidering a college major before too much time and money is committed.
  3. Consider summer courses. Just like taking the AP, any courses that can be taken before college will help later. General education, or underclass, units can be taken at local community colleges, often with smaller class sizes and for less money than when a student gets to a college or university. Math is math, no matter where you take it. Why not get a head start now?
  4. Take a part-time job. Working during college can help reduce the amount of money that needs to be borrowed, in addition to providing valuable job experience. Use the summer to help build a nest egg for college expenses.
  5. Research textbook and supply rentals. Course books can be one of the biggest expenses for students once they get to college. While many colleges allow students to rent textbooks instead of buying them, online sites such as chegg.com, eFollett.com, textbooks.com and others can provide other options and the opportunity to compare prices. Getting to know the options ahead of time in school can lead to saving hundreds of dollars come fall.

New Video Discusses “Why Volunteering Matters” For College Students

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Today we premiere the most recent “Education Empowers” video, looking at the benefits of getting involved on- and off-campus during college. Our panel of college graduates discuss the impact that volunteering made in their lives both during school and after graduation.

For VISTA Volunteer, Serving Community Brings Personal, Professional Growth

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At the heart of Iowa College Aid’s mission is the idea that education after high school is possible to every Iowan, regardless of age. To help bring deliver that message, Iowa College Aid’s “College Changes Everything” program works at the community level with a variety of different Iowa towns to help build momentum at the grass roots level.

Key to that success are the community-based VISTA volunteers through AmeriCorps. Celebrating 50 years of Volunteers In Service To America, these volunteers dedicate a year of service to working in towns to help be agents of positive change. In Council Bluffs, IA, Ben Thorp has served as a VISTA member working with the Council Bluffs Community School District as part of the “College Changes Everything” program and other Iowa College Aid programs such as the agency’s “3-Step Process” which helps students apply for college, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and celebrate college-going during “College Decision Day.” As Ben completes his year of VISTA service, he reflected on his experience serving Iowans:

I didn’t have a lot of expectations about my year of service, about where I was headed or what I was doing, and I think that ended up being for the best. When I got here it was a fairly free-form gig: my job was to figure out how best to serve the school district students get to college, but beyond that description there wasn’t much in the way of guidance.

For me then it became about communicating as much as possible with students, counselors (especially), and teachers to figure out what was needed, what was best, what could be the most helpful. My sense is that this, really, is what community work is all about: working with people to figure out what they need and then finding the best way to provide it. Relationship then, is the most important bridge towards this. Getting to know the people you’re serving personally as well as professionally has been one of the things that I’ve really come to value because it helped me to better understand what kind of work mattered in the community and how I could be a part of it.

I don’t know that there was a moment of “this is why I’m serving” for me, there were certainly moments that were great to be a part of, in particular the kickoff to the Pottawattamie Promise Scholarship program that is providing 40 students in the district with full ride scholarships to attend IWCC in the fall, something they hope to extend to every student in the district by 2018. Overall though, I’m not sure this year answered my bigger questions of how we can create a more equal society and where exactly I belong in that work.

Personally and Professionally is where the biggest changes were made this year. I feel much, much more confident and capable as a person (both as a work person AND as a everyday person person). While this year didn’t carve out exactly what I want to do moving forward it definitely gave me the confidence to pursue the things that I care about which I think has been the better lesson. One of the best pieces of advice I got this year was from a community organizer in Omaha who told me “there are the people who do service work that are there because they think it’s the right thing to do and there are the people who do service work because it’s what they WANT to do. The people who are here because it’s what they want are a million times more helpful.” For better or worse that really spoke to me. I have a a sense of civic duty and a desire to help, but I’m not really sure where best I fit in and what work I can both be engaged and helpful in. For that, I am still searching.

For more information on the AmeriCorps VISTA program, visit their website. For more information on “College Changes Everything,” and to discover more about VISTA openings around the state, visit Iowa College Aid.

Tips To Keep Students of All Ages Busy and On Track This Summer

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GEAR UP Iowa Facilitator Tiffany Berkenes offers some advice for students and families looking to stay on track and not lose classroom momentum before the next school year.

When we think of summer, we think of sunshine (enjoying relief from harsh Midwest winters!), spending time outside with friends, trying the newest fried treat at the Iowa State Fair, taking family vacations, and for many kids – a break from school. Although summer is meant to be and should be a time for “kids to be kids,” this is also a period in which our youth experience a significant amount of learning loss, particularly those from lower-income families.

When the doors of the schools close and the routine of daily instruction and educational engagement end for three months, students are suddenly faced with nearly three months of freedom in which they potentially lose two months’ worth of academic knowledge. There’s good news! Kids can still learn; still engage their brain while having fun – sometimes without even knowing it!

For many families, they support and want their children to participate in summer learning; however, accessibility, awareness of options, and affordability present barriers. For that reason, below are a variety of opportunities for all ages that will keep that young mind active and better prepared for entering the next grade-level. Bonus: Many of these experiences are great for networking and to include on college and scholarship applications!

  • Check out your local Boys & Girls Club to see if they offer the Summer Brain Gain, which is available for elementary, middle, and high school students
  • Start a book club with friends or neighbors – now’s the time YOU can choose what you read! Take it outside to your favorite park, and then discuss the books over a picnic
  • High School Students: Apply for the free TRIO Upward Bound college prep program, which offers a 6-week summer experience on college campuses. UB programs in Iowa are hosted by the following: Central College, Simpson College, DMACC-Urban, Iowa State University, University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa, Western Iowa Tech Community College, and Southeastern Community College.
  • Participate in a summer camp – there are several offered at various places like the YMCA, local museums, sports organizations, churches, dance/gymnastic studios, etc.
  • Ask your school district and public libraries about summer programming – usually it’s free!
  • Visit college campuses! For example, Iowa Private College Week is August 3-7.
  • Volunteer for a place that fits your interests such as the Animal Rescue League, the zoo, library, the hospital, daycare, etc. Find a volunteer opportunity at Volunteer Iowa.
  • Explore free digital learning apps, which you can take outside with you. Khan Academy is one example, and there are more listed here.
  • Break out the old school board games – again, something you can do outside!
  • Sign up for the free Ten Marks Summer Math Program
  • Have a dream job in mind? Ask to job shadow someone!
  • PBS Kids free resources
  • Blog or journal about your summer adventures