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6 things you can do now before applying to college

For high school seniors, 2015 is going to get crazy really soon.

When school starts in the fall, seniors will find themselves juggling classes and extracurricular activities, studying for the SAT and/or ACT, researching colleges and completing college applications.

Here are six things you and your child can do this summer to make the fall less hectic:

1. Use net price calculators.

If money is an issue, and it usually is even for affluent families, it is essential that you use a net price calculator to generate estimated costs for every college on your child's list.

The goal of institutional net price calculators is to give you an advanced look at what you'll pay for one year of college after any likely scholarships and grants are subtracted from the cost of attendance. For example, if the school costs $60,000 and the calculator determines a student would receive $25,000 in grants, the net price would be $35,000.

Most families have no idea what their price will be for any school until they receive an award letter, which can come as late as the spring and that is unacceptable. These federally mandated calculators can be a godsend by giving you a sneak preview of costs. This will allow you to eliminate unrealistically expensive schools from consideration BEFORE applying.

Excellent calculators can take 15 to 20 minutes or more to use while poor ones can be completed in a minute or less. Be leery of any calculator that asks few questions because they are unreliable.

2. Start on your college essay.

Summer is the perfect time to write those dreaded college essays.

Before plunging in, have your child visit Essay Hell, a free online resource that is stuffed with excellent advice about writing a perfect college essay.

If your child plans to apply to one of the 600-plus schools using the Common Application, he or she can check out the five essay prompts slated for the 2015-2016 admission season.

The line-up includes one brand new prompt:

Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma--anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

3. Write the supplemental essays.

While schools that use the Common Application all rely on the main essay with the five prompts, schools can also require supplemental essays. When the Common Application releases its 2015-2016 application on Aug. 1, you can see what the supplemental questions, if any, are required for schools on your child's list. Teenagers should also tackle these questions during the summer.

A typical supplemental question asks some variation of this: Why do you want to attend this school?

4. Research schools.

Students need to get serious about finalizing their college list. If you can swing it, spend time visiting campuses this summer. Research schools on their respective admission websites, as well as on academic department sites. It's essential that your child talk with current students at each school.

If the targeted schools evaluate applicants holistically -- that is they rely on more that test scores, rank and grade point averages -- your child should make sure that schools know that he/she is interested. Beyond visiting, an excellent way to convey interest is for a teenager to contact the admission rep who is responsible for his/her state or region. You should be able to find the right person by visiting the staff directory of a school's admission department.

5. Study for the ACT/SAT

Unfortunately, the ACT and the SAT testing services do not make the standardized tests available in the summer when students have more free time to take them. Summer, however, is an excellent time to study for these high-stakes tests.

The Khan Academy has teamed up with the College Board to provide free test prep for the current SAT and the new test that will make its appearance next March.

If your child fails to earn a good score on either test, check out the list of test-optional colleges and universities at FairTest.org.

6. Create an admission calendar.

There are many deadlines that students must meet during the admission process, including deadlines for applications, scholarships and financial aid. If your child plans to apply to any schools via early decision or early action, the deadlines could come before Thanksgiving. Creating a calendar can help you and your child stay organized.

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