Note: The audience here is presumed to be the parent, although the information is good for students too...
1. There is a college for everyone, whether or not you have good grades. So don't panic. That said, once you determine what your "range" school should be (e.g., you think you should be able to get into MSU), apply to more than one of them! And for every "reach" school you apply to, apply to a "safety" school. The application costs only sound like a lot when you forget how much you will pay for college. In the case of my son, that meant two reach schools, two range schools, two safeties. Verdict? Admitted to ranges and safeties; waitlisted at reaches. That made me feel that this system works. (The key, however? Correctly identifying your "range" schools.)
2. Apply early! Yes, that means October. Not only does it improve your chances of getting in to the school you want, but it also makes the rest of the year much more pleasant.
3. Your mileage may vary. If financial aid offers are important to you, then "you'd better shop around." Small schools may give more money than large schools--and this could effectively neutralize the cost of going to a small private school. Some schools--Western Michigan, Indiana come to mind--advertise that if your GPA is X and your test scores are Y, you will get Z amount of merit money. And test scores do matter when it comes to racking up financial aid. Applying to more schools means you will be able to compare more offers--you might be surprised at the variation.
4. Despite that--before you decide that you must pay for Kaplan, Princeton Review, or a private test tutor, why don't you see how your child does on the PACT and PSAT? Or even on the ACT or SAT? You can retake those tests, you know. It may be totally unnecessary to pay for any tutoring at all. In my son's case, after he took the PACT, the ACT, the PSAT and the SAT, I decided to pay for three hours of a private tutor to help with the math part of the ACT. That ended up costing a lot less than a full course, and seemed to do the trick. Most of what he learned related to how to "read" (analyze) the test questions. I also heard the tutor telling my son the same things I had said. "Take your time, don't rush through the material." Somehow, when the tutor said it, it had some weight.
5. Before your student fills out the college application, have him/her make a list of all the activities she/he has done over the years. Think broadly--tutoring a neighbor? Sunday School teacher's aide? Working at Dairy Queen? Read over the essay questions. Expect a question about diversity, and remember that that question does not have to mean racial diversity. Sure, you can discuss the essay questions and do some editing, but don't write the damn essay--it needs to be the student's work.
6. Work with the school counselor to get the best recommendation letter possible. At Community High, the counselors ask studentss to provide names of people whom the applicant thinks would provide a well-rounded picture of him/her. The counselors then email those people asking for a few sentences about said student, and that detail becomes the backbone of the counselor's letter. I really like this approach and wish more counselors would use it, because many times, students switch counselors partway through a high school career, and the counselor doesn't know the student from Adam.
OK, I lied in the title. Here's one more thing:
7. Despite what all of those education manuals will tell you, college is not for everyone, and certainly it's not for everyone just after they graduate from high school. There are many fabulous gap year programs. (I went on one many, many years ago and boy did it open my eyes.) There is a great big world to explore. And the world still needs electricians and plumbers.