Whether you are a first generation or fourth generation college bound student, the college planning process can be daunting. From the obvious decisions such as where to apply, to the less common discussion of knowing what standardized test is a better fit for your skill set, it’s no wonder students and parents nationwide are left frustrated and confused by the process.

To simplify matters, here are five things every parent and college bound student should know about the college planning process:

  1. There is a difference between the ACT and SAT (beyond the test’s names!) The ACT is based on what a student should already have learned while the SAT is based on what a student could learn. Also, there is no science portion on the SAT, so students who excel in writing tend to perform better on the SAT than the ACT. Regardless of which test you take: practice, practice, practice! (Note: Michigan is an ACT state, but the SAT can also be taken so colleges can review both scores and factor them into their decision-making process.)
  2. Everyone, no matter the income level, should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. Because there are other forms of monetary assistance available beyond government loans and grants, it is in the best interest of college bound students and their parents to fill out the FAFSA form. The student is likely eligible for other types of financial aid such as private sector scholarships.
  3. Volunteerism and leadership roles (as early as middle school!) can have a major impact on college admittance. Colleges like to see that prospective students have been active volunteers through school or at community or faith-based organizations, so join a club or community endeavor and become actively involved. Also, holding leadership positions on student council, area government youth councils or other school or community engaged activities can present opportunities for measurable change through new programs. Such experiences also help write interesting college application essays. The take away? Don’t just volunteer – take the lead!
  4. More private university students graduate in four years. Private schools have a higher percentage of students who graduate in four years; on average, public universities graduate students in six years. So even though the initial ‘sticker price’ may seem higher at private universities, they may be less expensive in the long run and are worth the time to investigate further.
  5. There is a difference between Cost of Attendance (COA) and tuition. Tuition refers to the cost of credit hours; e.g. the amount it will cost to sit in class, and is approximately only 1/3 the total COA. COA is not only tuition but also room and board, books, etc.

As an added bonus, my sixth piece of advice is to start early and remain committed to the college planning process.

Happy planning!