Monthly Guide to College Planning

January: Financial Aid

The cost of a college degree can easily go to six figures. The prospect of venturing into that type of financial commitment is terrifying. Before you had into a panic attack, know there's plenty of help - and money - out there.

Since you entered high school you have probably received letters that offer "Full Scholarships" and "Large Amounts of Financial Aid." They come from all sorts of companies with names that look and sound legitimate. They may be perfectly legal, but they are often not as "helpful" as they seem. The "free" money is not really free because the companies charge fees. And everything they do for you, you can do yourself.

Of course, all prospective students would like to receive a full athletic scholarship to their favorite school, but the vast majority will not be so lucky. That doesn't mean that you can't get money for college from other sources without spending a lot in the process. Financial Aid is a very complex subject and I'll do my best to get you started with the basics.

The first step to getting Financial Aid is to go to the Free Application For Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) website as soon as possible. Though applications will be accepted all year, the sooner you file the more aid will be available to you. The FAFSA form is mandatory for anyone interested in Federal aid and loans, including the Federal Pell Grand, Federal Perkins Loans and Federal Work Study. The form is also used by private colleges and universities for grants and loans given by their institutions and aid given by individual states. There is absolutely no charge for filing for these forms of Financial Aid. They can be done as soon as your family has their financial information for 2008.

The FAFSA can look a bit scary when you first see it, but the site provides excellent step-by-step support. There are also numbers to call if you still have questions. If you still have difficulty navigating the questions after going through the help files, don't hesitate to bring the form and your questions to your guidance counselor. That is what they are there for.

In addition to FAFSA there are other sources for aid that do not have any cost to students. Fast Web is an excellent source of scholarships. Also, the College Board, in addition to being the place to register for SATs. There is no cost to register and use their sites. They are all advertiser supported. (It's worth looking at a few ads for the potential of thousands of dollars.)

When searching for scholarship money, don't forget to check with the companies that you and your parents work for. Many companies offer grants and gifts to employees and children of employees. And, of course, keep the coach aware of your situation because they can always give the Financial Aid office a little "push" to help bring you to their team. Maybe there isn't enough money in the budget for another athletic scholarship, however, there might be other scholarships they can give you.

There are a lot of options out there. All it takes is a little time and a click of the mouse to find them. Paying for college is one instance where you don't have to spend money to make money.

For all of you High School Juniors out there, it's time to hit the books. The second half of the school year has started and it's time to work on that GPA (Grade Point Average). It may be the thing that gets you into the school you want. Contrary to the movies, just being a star athlete does not guarantee you an in to a good academic school. Hit those books!

February: A Visit Is Worth A Thousand Words

For those of you who have already applied to the schools of your choice and received acceptances, this is the time to start gathering all the facts and narrowing down your decision. Student Aid Reports will be arriving in the mail from the Free Application For Student Aid. (If you have not yet filled out the FAFSA, see our January column). You should also begin getting your Financial Award Notifications from the colleges you were accepted to.

Sorting through this jumble of paperwork is not easy. Read through the Financial Award Notifications carefully to see what scholarships, loans and grants are available to you at each school. If you have questions or feel there is a mistake, let the school know as soon as possible. If you feel your Student Aid Report is not correct, contact FAFSA immediately so they can get the corrected information to the schools. You should also give any information that is new or could not been included on your FAFSA to the school's financial aid office. This would include things like changes in your family's income (a loss of job) or unusual medical bills. They take all this information in to account and will adjust if possible and necessary.

Whether you have acceptances or still haven't decided where to go, this is the time to decide. Make time to visit each school again. Remember that a visit is worth a thousand words in a brochure or online. Ask questions in the Financial Aid Office, from Admissions and to other students that attend the university. If you haven't used up your official visits (5) yet, now is a great time to do so.

February is also the perfect time for high school juniors to start thinking about their college careers. Use the resources at College Sports Connect to find colleges that meet your needs for sports and academics. Make plans to attend open houses. Register for SATs. Also, consider taking some college level courses next year. It will be a lot of work to keep up with studies and playing college sports - why not get a head start. Juniors should also be thinking about visits. Though coaches are not allowed by NCAA bylaws to "recruit" you until July before your senior year, you can still visit them and their teams.

Remember to follow the teams you are interested in at the NCAA website, as well as the individual websites for the schools. (You can find all of them on College Sports Connect). As we transition into spring, use this time to get yourself organized for your next educational steps. Then you will have plenty of time left for the fun stuff - like Prom and Graduation parties!

March: Another Signing Period - What You Need To Know

It's only three months until graduation you still have not joined a team. You're starting to panic and worry that you will never play college tennis. There's no need to lose sleep, you are definitely not alone and it's definitely not too late.

The Official Signing Period varies for different sports (see the Signing Calendar), but most have their regular signing dates in the spring. While many scholarships are given away during the Early Signing Period and in verbal commitments before that, there are still more to be had as long as you don't procrastinate any longer. It's the time to seriously think about where you want to play and what that school can offer you.

Once your mind is made up you will sign the National Letter of Intent. It is a binding, legal agreement that includes many specific facts about your responsibilities as a student-athlete. All of the details (including a copy of the actual letter) can be found at their website - Here are some of the most important points to keep in mind before you sign:

The NLI applies only to full-time students;

At the time you sign the NLI, the school must give you a written offer of athletic financial aid for the entire upcoming academic year;

When you sign the NLI, you are committing to at least one full year at that institution;

If you do not go to the school you sign with and stay there for a year, you cannot play for another school until you have completed two academic years at that school.

Of course, there are many other rules and regulations in the NLI. Be sure to go over it carefully with your parents before signing. And once you do, celebrate, relax and enjoy the rest of your senior year in high school!!

High School Juniors... Keep checking out those coaches. And let them know where to find you. They can't call you yet, but that doesn't mean they are not tracking your play. For more information, read through the documents on the NCAA website. Also think about purchasing the print version of College Sports Connects' Monthly Guide to College Planning and you will have all the facts in front of you wherever you go!

April: The Countdown -- It May Be Crunch Time, But It's Never Too Late

It's April. The birds are singing, the flowers are blooming and it's time for all teenagers to put some serious thought into college.

If you are a senior who has already received acceptances into the colleges you want, this is the time to compare the financial award letters. In these you will find the COA (Cost of Attendance). The COA will include everything from tuition to books and all of the expenses in between. If you have asked to be considered for financial aid and/or scholarships, you will also receive an award letter. This letter is based on the EFC (Expected Family Contribution) that was computed by FAFSA. It will tell you what financial aid you will be receiving.

Financial aid is a very broad term. It could include academic, leadership and tennis scholarships; Federal loans (for students); and work study. It will also include your eligibility for a Plus loan that will usually cover you for any fees that are left over after aid. The Plus loan, unlike the Federal Student Loans that start payments after graduation, is paid back by parents starting six months after your receive it.

The financial aid letter is not always the final say. If your family's income has changed, unusual expenses have come up or if the aid just does not meet your needs, contact the school. Compare each award letter carefully. For example, if School A is offering you $15,000 in aid while School B is offering only $5,000, there may not turn out to be a difference in the long run if School B has a much lower COA. Also consider the location of the school. If it's going to cost you a lot to return home from a certain school and you plan on doing so a few times a year, add that in to your COA.

Check your letters carefully to see what each school's deadline is and what deposits (usually non-refundable) they expect by that date. If there are any schools you are certain you will not attend, be sure to inform them quickly so they may apply your unused aid toward other students who may need it. Discuss all this with your parents.

What if you haven't picked a school yet? Or, if you've changed your mind about the school you thought you would attend? It's not too late. Use the resources at College Sports Connect to search for additional schools that meet your needs. While it may be too late at a lot of schools to apply for financial aid, the regular signing period is just beginning this month for most sports (see the Signing Calendar). There are still coaches recruiting for fall and some still have scholarships.

High school juniors should be visiting some of the Spring Open Houses and making plans to take SATs. Most students take the SATs at least twice so don't get too nervous about your first test. You may also want to discuss with your guidance counselor the possibility of taking the SAT II exams and/or the ACTs. It is also time to crack those books because the average you receive this year will follow you as you make your college plans.

While April may be a scary time for teenagers when they are faced with making college decisions, remember that it's never too late to change your mind. Go with what you feel will be best for your future and don't let the pressure get you down.

May: Putting It All Together

You finally made the decision. It was probably the biggest decision you have made in your life. You picked the college you want to go to and sent in your deposit. You think it's all settled and it's finally time to start plans for graduation partying. That couldn't be further from the truth.

Sending in your acceptance to a college is just the beginning of the next chapter. There is a lot more to do. It's time to agree to the terms of necessary financial aid and scholarships as well as secure loans for any additional funds that you may need. If you applied for Federal Direct and/or Plus Loans you will have received your approval by now, but there are still applications to be filled out. They must be filled out as soon as possible after you have made your college choice.

This is also the time for Advance Placement (AP) tests. Check with the college you are attending to find out what score you need in order for them to accept your AP course for credit. You don't want to find that out after the test when it's too late that a little extra studying would have given you three college credits.

And don't forget to make summer plans. If you plan on working remember that summer jobs for high school students can fill up fast, so be sure to get your applications in. If you are lucky enough to have travel in your summer plans - whether it is just for fun or to a play a tournament - now is also the time to make those arrangements. Travel sales and student travel discounts are much more abundant when planned in advance. If your travel is geared toward playing sports, you might want to get an advance peak at college sports by playing some of the events with your fellow college players. Check with your future coach about possibilities.

And remember, whether you are a junior getting started or a senior who is still unsure, you can still use College Sports Connect to help you find schools. To find out more about the tennis teams at the schools you are interested in, visit the school's websites everyday this month for daily action of championships, final rankings, All-Americans and Awards from all the intercollegiate divisions. You can find links to all the college websites right here on College Sports Connect.

June: School's Out For Summer

Another school year is over and that means you are another year closer to being a college athlete, but before you break out singing "School's Out For Summer," there are still things you need to take care of this month.

There have been a lot of changes in the last few years in eligibility rules due to the questioning of the definition of amateur status. The NCAA has been doing their best to keep up and all prospective student-athletes must register if they wish to play college sports. Go to the NCAA Eligibility site. If you have not yet registered, do so immediately. If you did register last year, double-check that there haven't been any changes that require you to complete more information.

For those of you who have just finished their senior year, congratulations. It's a lot of work for anyone to get through school, but for an athlete it can be even more difficult to keep up. Before you celebrate this great accomplishment, though, there are still things you need to take care of this month.

If you haven't already sent out all of your deposits for college you must do this immediately. Athletes usually need to live on campus so don't forget the additional housing forms and payments to be made. Also, all universities now require health forms to be filled out. Call your physician as soon as possible (appointments book up quickly in the summer) and schedule that physical. Some colleges are now requiring students to be inoculated for some diseases like Hepatitis.

Settle on your plans for the summer whether it's working, hanging out with your high school friends for the last time for awhile, or participating in sporting events (hopefully you will be doing a little of each). If you are still undecided about college, it's time to go back over that list of schools again. Then check with the coaches of those schools to see where you stand. You never know until you call.

July: It's Summertime

Summertime means recruiting time for a lot of athletes. For sophomores and juniors, it is June and July when coaches are allowed to contact athletes for the first time (See the NCAA's Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete for specifics). It can be exciting and overwhelming, but it should be more the former than the latter.

Keep in mind that a coach representing NCAA Division I or II may not call you more than once a week at the most (there are times during your high school years where the limit is once a month). They are aware of this and don't feel bad about reminding them if at anytime you feel uncomfortable with the phone calls. This is true also in other college sports divisions where coaches are allowed unlimited calling, but harassment is never acceptable so voice any concerns you have if you feel it is too much.

Another important point for eligible recruits to remember is that they may not be approached in the middle of an event beyond a simple hello. It's a good time to weed out the coaches that you are comfortable with by those who are following the rules. And use the time between events -- while you aren't in school -- to arrange for some visits.

For recent graduates, your new school will be offering a Freshman Orientation this summer. It is a great opportunity to learn more about the college. It will also be a lot different from your "official visit" as you will actually be meeting and spending time with people who aren't on your team. It's a great time to make some friends -- there will be plenty of time to get to know your teammates later.

If you have graduated, but haven't picked a college, it's not too late. Contact the coaches of any schools you were interested in to see if they have an opening. Or, set your sites on January and use the time to work or train. Just do not take prize money for sports as it could permanently jeopardize your eligibility.

August: You're Finally There

One of my favorite parts of my job as a sports writer is seeing all the junior/high school athletes in August as they are about to become college athletes. There's a certain gleam in their eyes when they realize that this is it -- the moment they've waited so long for. It's an indescribable combination of exhilaration and apprehension as you realize you're finally going off to college.

Entering college is a big change. You are now considered an adult. You are responsible for your own decisions, classes and books. Even if you are attending a school close to home it is still going to be very different from going to high school. No one will call home if you miss a class or aren't keeping up with your grades. It is up to you to do your class work on time, every time. And, as if all that pressure wasn't enough, you are now in a new role as a member of a college tennis team.

Be prepared to be overwhelmed at first. Starting a new school can be difficult enough, but becoming part of a team is a new experience for many of you who play individual sport. Even for those in team sports, it is a different situation because you are together (sometimes 24 hours a day for days at a time) as part of a group. Remember that your coach (and assistant coach) is there to help you make this transition. Don't be afraid to ask questions and admit when you need help.

Savor every moment of these last few weeks before classes start. Get organized. Coordinate your class schedule and your practice schedule. Look through your team's schedule for any breaks you may have during which you can schedule trips home. Yes, I know you haven't even gotten there yet, but trust me that you will want to come home and you don't want it to be too late to make arrangements when you finally realize that. Grab those holiday flights now (or ask Mom or Dad to do it for you).

For those of you who are now entering your senior year of high school, congratulations to you too. It is going to be a fun year. You will have a lot of decisions to make over the coming months. Starting next month it will be your turn to look to this column to guide you through your final year as a junior/high school athlete. Count on College Sports Connect to help you find schools and take you through the very important next twelve months of your life.