Viroopa Volla may have had her heart set on attending Harvard University since she was in kindergarten, but by the time she began her college search process as a student at Eagan High School, she had some catching up to do.

"I was very late in my testing. I didn't even take the ACT until June of my junior year because I just wasn't paying attention to the dates," said Volla, 19. "I didn't like my scores, so I ended up taking the test again. It's definitely better to have all the testing out of the way before senior year starts."

Volla's test scores on the ACT and SAT and her academic record and selection as a National Merit finalist did, in fact, land her at Harvard, where she will be a sophomore in the fall. She is considering a major in applied mathematics-economics.

Parents and students with college on the horizon may want to make time during the summer for everything from marking those all-important test dates on the calendar to visiting college campuses, but first, they need to discuss what the college search process will look like for their family.

"Parents have a tendency to start thinking about this topic before the student. Set up an hourlong appointment on a Saturday morning with your child. Tell them you want to have a conversation about the type of school they are interested in or about college finances," said Marjorie Savage, parent program director at the University of Minnesota. "While we want students to be doing the real work on their college searches, parents need to set the parameters."

Since several organizational steps are involved in the search process -- often challenging to track especially if it is a family's first child going to college -- Savage suggested simple tools like a file box and a yellow highlighter.

"Students typically start receiving mail from a lot of colleges during junior year, so they can use the highlighter to mark important testing or scholarship dates," said Savage. "Or print out e-mails with the information and do the same thing. Make a calendar to keep track of it all."

Brandi De Fries, admissions director at St. Mary's University in Winona, Minn., said summer campus tours and information sessions can be very helpful for parents with high school juniors and seniors. She encourages visits to larger and smaller institutions so the student -- and parents -- can narrow the list of the kinds of schools they might want to explore further.

A difficult choice

As important as visits can be, Savage said parents are often surprised by their student's reaction to a campus tour.

"Parents have this sense that it will be so much fun, but for students, it can actually be kind of nerve-racking," she said. "They are putting pressure on themselves to pick the right school and if they don't know what they are looking for, they get stressed out."

It's a family process, too, said De Fries. "Parents have to be as comfortable with their child's decision as the student is."

Volla recalled several late-night conversations with her parents while she was filling out college applications and writing essays.

"Your parents will always be your biggest fans. Talk to them about what you are thinking or what you are concerned about," she said. "When I knew that I was going to be going to the school of my dreams, it felt absolutely wonderful."

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.

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