Parent Advocacy Handbook: Thinking Beyond High School

Beyond High School (Ages 18+)

What You Need to Know

A goal of FCPS’ Portrait of a Graduate is to provide opportunities for emerging adults to learn skills to be successful after high school. Parents and guardians can help students develop these skills by working with teachers and school staff.

Young adults have many options today - from attending a two or four year college, enjoying international travel, joining the military, learning a trade, obtaining an internship, enrolling in adult education classes, earning a vocational certificate, or choosing to start a business. 

Parents and guardians can support their student in many ways.  The College and Career Specialist and counselors at the high school have resources for students and parents or guardians.

Be an Advocate

Looking Beyond High School

  • Listen to your young adult:  Talk with your young adult about mutual expectations but also listen to what they are saying about their future.  What do they want to achieve as an adult? What are their passions? What are their strengths? How do they want to contribute to society? How can you help them achieve their goals?
  • Encourage Experiences: Encourage your young adult to apply for jobs, college, or further training. Suggest and encourage your young adult to acquire part-time work or volunteer experiences related to their career plans.
  • Consider Career Options: Attend career information programs or college fairs and college night programs. Young adults should consider taking an occupational survey that develops a profile of the likely careers that would fit well with their survey profile. Also consider taking career-related tests (e.g., O*NET Interest Profiler at My Next Move). 
  • Get Familiar with College Admission. Young adults applying to college should take the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) in the fall of their sophomore year of high school (for practice) and junior year (for scholarships).  College entrance exams Scholastic Aptitude Test I (SAT I), American College Testing (ACT), Scholastic Aptitude Test II (SAT II), Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) are typically taken in the spring of junior year, and again in the fall of senior year if needed. If military service is under consideration, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) is required. Higher scores on admissions tests can mean more choices when considering colleges and military branches. Higher test scores can also open up opportunities for additional grants and scholarships to help pay for college.  

Beyond High School - What are Some Options?

Explore Options

Some students want to enter into the workplace right after graduating high school and others want to follow a pathway from workplace into college and back to the workplace after receiving a post-secondary credential or college degree.

Whether your young adult plans to attend college or trade school, enter an apprenticeship program, join the military, or simply find a job, parents and guardians can help them consider opportunities and help find information about various options. 


Students have many opportunities through two year (community college) or four year programs. 

Two Year Programs: 

A two-year college offers many options for students. Students may earn a two-year associates degree and may use it to transfer to a four-year program.  They also can earn a one-year certificate that prepares them for a specific vocation.

Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) is the largest public education institution in Virginia, and the second largest community college in the U.S. The main campus is in Annandale, VA, but the college has five additional campuses in Northern Virginia. NOVA also offers numerous distance learning opportunities.

  • A.A./A.S./A.F.A. Degrees: Students may earn an Associate of Arts or an Associate of Science Degree or an Associates of Fine Arts Degree from NOVA in various academic disciplines. These degrees allow students to continue education towards a bachelor’s degree at a four year college. Students who earn an A.A. or A.S. degree may earn guaranteed admission to a four-year college that has a Guaranteed Admission Agreement with NOVA, if they meet the requirements of that agreement for that school.
  • A.A.A./A.A.S Degrees: Students may earn a two-year Associate of Applied Arts Degree to prepare for employment in fine arts, music, or photography or an Associate of Applied Science Degree to prepare for employment in various technical fields. These programs are not designed generally for transfer to four-year colleges or universities.
  • Certificates: Students may earn a certificate for a specific job. Some certificates are part of an associate degree program, while others are stand-alone programs. Certificates can lead to immediate full-time employment in a variety of areas, including (but not limited to): information technology; various health services, such as nursing, dental hygiene, occupational therapist assistant, physical therapist assistant, and emergency medicine technicians; and various skilled trades, such as welding, automotive technology engineering technology; and air conditioning and refrigeration.

Some benefits of community college:

  • Everyone with a high school degree can attend. There is no admissions test (SAT/ACT). You register to attend.
  • Community college is a less expensive post-secondary option than many four-year college. If a student qualifies for a Pell Grant, that grant will basically cover most of your costs at NOVA. Two years of community college before transferring to complete a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution may be a very cost-effective way to pay for college for many families.
  • Certificate programs offer a pathway to immediate full-time employment. For students who do not wish to enroll in two or four-year studies, certificate programs offer a pathway to jobs that offer financial benefits and stability. (Students who are paying for college themselves might consider earning a certificate first to enable them to secure employment that will help them pay later college expenses.)

Four Year Programs: 

A four-year program at a College or University gives students many different options for post-secondary study. Students may earn a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) Degree or a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) Degree upon completion of the coursework required for their specific degree. Students who want to pursue postgraduate degrees (masters or doctorate) must complete a bachelor’s degree first.

According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, there are approximately 2,618 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Students have many different choices to consider, so students should begin thinking about, and preparing for, college early.

Students can begin to identify college options by using tools provided in Naviance Student, visiting their high school College and Career Center, and doing online research. There are many college guide websites that may be helpful such as:

Students must apply for admission to four-year colleges. Applications may require personal essays; admissions testing (either the SAT or the ACT); teacher and counselor recommendations; and a high school transcript. Students apply to most four-year colleges in the fall of 12th grade.

Four year colleges and universities vary in price, with public institutions (such as state universities) being less expensive than private colleges and universities. Many parents are overwhelmed by the possible cost of college. It is important to know that there are many ways to pay for college including savings and financial assistance (scholarships, grants, and loans). Families with fewer resources are eligible for greater financial assistance.

Financial aid is available from many universities based on family financial need. Some colleges anduniversities have committed to financing college in full, with no loans, for students who meet need requirements. Scholarships also are available to students through colleges and universities, and private and non-profit business and organizations. Families interested in applying for financial help must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) online. Some colleges and universities also require the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS). These applications are used to determine how much students and their families are able to contribute to the cost of college.

For more information about colleges and universities, speak with your student’s counselor and the College and Career Specialist at your high school.

Job Training

Apprenticeship Programs

Apprenticeship Programs are open to young adults who are at least 16 years old. Apprentices receive on-the-job training in a particular skill or trade. Apprenticeship programs also include some classroom instruction, and can culminate in a degree or certification. A typical program lasts from three to four years, depending upon the trade.

For more information about apprenticeship programs in Northern Virginia, please call the Fairfax County Public Schools representative of the Virginia Department of Labor and Industry, Division of Apprenticeship Training at (703) 506-2300.

Trade and Technical Training

Fairfax County Public Schools has professional technical centers where students may continue training after high school. The adult education program offers courses for people no longer in high school. Many community colleges have trade and vocational training programs, as do private trade and technical schools.


Military Service

Joining the military (U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, or Coast Guard) can be an exciting way for a young person to serve the country and build marketable skills. Students who wish to serve can enlist in the military branch of their choice. In addition to pay and training, enlisted men and women can earn funds for college through the G.I. Bill.

Students who wish to pursue a college degree and military service at the same time can do so by applying to one of the U.S. military service academies or the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) offered at many colleges and universities.

Both men and women may enlist in all branches of the armed forces. Enlistment procedures are similar, but the services differ in length of enlistment and opportunities for specific training. A local military recruiter can provide more complete information about military options. There is a testing requirement for military service.


Gap Year / Undecided

Gap Year

For some high school graduates, taking a year off between high school and the “real world” can be beneficial. A gap year offers recent high school graduates an opportunity to take a break from academics before heading on to college, trade school, military service, or full-time employment. Young people can do community service (e.g., AmeriCorps), work on political campaigns, and get a full-time job to earn money for college, travel or live in a foreign country, or work on art projects or other passions, among other things. 

Students opt for gap years for many different reasons. Some are simply burned out after twelve or thirteen straight years of formal education. Others want another chance to apply to a dream school that did not offer admission on a first attempt. Others have personal or family circumstances that necessitate a year off before taking next steps.  Any of these reasons are valid reasons for a break. And, many colleges actually encourage students, even those who already have been admitted, to take a gap year.

There are many formal gap year programs now that offer structured programs for students, but many of them are expensive, especially those that involve foreign travel. There are many, more-local opportunities for recent graduates. Fairfax County offers volunteer opportunities for its residents, including ones for teens, and provides useful information on other volunteer opportunities and internships available for young adults. 


If your student does not know what they want to do after high school, a good source of information and a place to start is the O*Net, a free publication of the federal government.  O*Net is an excellent career reference guide for career awareness and job searches. 

Planning for College Timeline


For Parents

Elementary School
  • Speak with your child about your thoughts and expectations for college.
  • Encourage your student to work hard, to read, and to find subjects they are interested in.
  • Start saving for college, if you are able to do so.
Middle School
  • Speak with your child about your thoughts and expectations for college.
  • Help your child develop strong study skills.
  • Speak with your school’s counselor about whether, and when, your student is ready for high-school level courses. Middle school students may take high-school level math classes (e.g., Algebra 1; Geometry) and foreign language classes for which they may earn high school credit.
  • Monitor your student’s progress. Encourage your student to get help at school if coursework becomes challenging. Investigate outside options as well, such as tutors, enrichment programs, etc.
  • If your child is taking a high school level course in middle school, and you have concerns about the grade received appearing on their official transcript, you can ask to expunge the class and grade from their record. Consult with your child’s counselor.
  • Start, or continue, saving for college.
High School
  • If your student is thinking about college, they need to begin laying the foundation for college beginning in their freshman year of high school.
  • The best predictor of college success is good grades in high school. Students with higher GPAs have many more choices for college.
  • Speak with your child’s counselor yearly to ensure that they are taking classes that will prepare them for college admissions and acceptance.
  • If your child wants to play sports at a NCAA Division I School, they will need to have a 2.3 GPA in core courses and a 900 SAT or 75 ACT sum score. For a Division II school, athletes need a 2.20 GPA and an 840 SAT or 70 ACT sum score to be able to play. 

For Students

Ninth Grade
  • Take challenging courses (math sequence) – work with your school counselor to plan your high school path.
  • If having trouble in a class, get help.
  • Explore athletics, school clubs, and other extra-curricular activities (both inside and outside of school) – find a passion
  • Develop an independent interest.
  • Explore volunteer opportunities.
  • Start a resume – students should begin making a list of all of your activities, volunteer work, jobs, awards and honors. Keep track of how many hours a week you spend on each activity, any special projects you undertook, any leadership positions you held.
  • Explore possible careers and research requirements
  • Work with parents to estimate your financial aid and save for college
  • If your are interested in playing college sports, make sure that they register with the NCAA Eligibility Center before their sophomore year to start a Certification Account and Profile Page. Students who wish to play for a Division I or II school must create a Certification Account to make an official school visit or to sign a National Letter of Intent.
Tenth Grade
  • Take challenging courses (Honors or AP if ready).
  • If you are having trouble in class, get help.
  • Plan to take the PSAT in October. This is good practice for later high-stakes college testing.
  • Find a mentor/potential college recommender.
  • Focus extracurricular activities – colleges like to see long-term commitment.
  • Update resume.
  • Visit some college campuses.
  • Check financial feasibility of colleges that interest student (be honest with student about paying for college and which schools are feasible).
Eleventh Grade
  • Take a challenging course load (Honors or AP/IB classes).
  • If your are having trouble in a class, get help.
  • Take leadership roles in extracurricular activities
  • Plan to take PSAT/NMSQT in October.  Students who take the PSAT/NMSQT in 11th grade are eligible for National Merit Scholarships awarded to college-bound high school seniors every year.
  • Plan to take the SAT (March or May) and/or ACT (February or April) early so you have time to re-take tests, if desired.
  • Visit your school’s College and Career Center regularly.
  • Study for standardized tests (SAT/ACT). There are many free online services.
  • Attend college fair and college night programs in October and April.
  • Develop a list of colleges to visit. Plan visits. If you visit during the summer before 12th grade, arrange to have an on-campus interview during your visit.
Twelfth Grade 
  • Take a challenging course load (beware of too many easy classes).
  • If you are having trouble in a class, get help.
  • Take leadership roles in extra-curricular activities.
  • Visit your school’s College and Career Center regularly. Take advantage of the information sessions the CCC offers with representatives from visiting colleges and universities.
  • Retake the SAT or ACT in the Fall if you are looking to improve your scores.
  • Request that your SAT or ACT scores are sent to the necessary colleges.
  • Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible after the open date of October 1. (Note: Parents must submit financial information, including tax returns, during the FAFSA application process and for many schools’ financial aid).
  • Submit early-action/early-decision applications, or applications for ROTC scholarships, by October or November deadlines.
  • If you have a job outside of school, establish a reasonable schedule for schoolwork, job, and sleep.
  • Finalize your list of colleges you want to apply to.
  • Plan for college applications. Know deadlines. Request teacher recommendations early. Check with your school's Student Information Assistant (SIA) about process for requesting transcripts.

Common Questions

What is the parent or guardian’s role in looking beyond high school? How can I support my student? How involved should I be?

As your student seriously considers life after high school, encourage them think all options. Ask them about their dreams for life beyond college (they may not be your dreams).

If your student says they need help, support them, but do not do the work for them. If they cannot do that work for themselves, they may not be ready to go to college.

If your student is college-bound, talk to them about finances, and what you are able or willing to pay for college. Do not wait to have that conversation until the last minute.

What do I need to know about the College Admissions Process?

Your student’s counselor and the College and Career Specialist at the high school can be of great help in navigating the college admissions process. Some possible questions for your counselor are:

  • What kinds of classes should my student take to be prepared for college?
  • What electives should they take?
  • What advanced/honors classes should they take?
  • What supports are available if a student needs academic help?
  • Where can we find information about different careers?
  • What summer opportunities are available that may help my student prepare for college?
  • Do you know about any scholarships or grants that can help pay for college?
  • What help is available when it’s time or college recommendation letters?

General advice on how to guide your student:

  • Visit colleges in an intentional manner. The college visit is an important part of the process for high school students to find the right fit and match. Some tips for the college visit include:
    • Let the student select some of the colleges on his or her own. Our experience is that the schools put on a list for college visits often are a combination of parents’ and counselor’s input.
    • Prior to the visit, parents should refrain from commenting until they hear from their student. Too often, parents talk first and it frequently puts the students and the parents in an unnecessary adversarial position. Our experience finds that visits work better if parents allow their student the full opportunity to experience the school and offer their opinions without contradicting other opinions they hear.
    • We strongly encourage students to keep a notebook where they can document their likes and dislikes about each school they visit. After several school visits, it is easy to be confused about how your felt about each separate school.
  • Ask for positive recommendations. We recommend that the student provide each individual who will write a recommendation with some background information about the student. We recommend that the student prepares a list of the requirements for all the schools to which they plan to apply, and what types of recommendations are needed. Once you have tabulated the various requirements, the student is ready to approach the teacher or counselor for recommendations. If the teacher or counselor cannot commit to a positive recommendation, the student should not have that person write for them. It is the student’s responsibility to find those individuals who will be able to comment on the student in a positive manner.
  • Apply to 6-7 schools. There are many theories on how many colleges or universities to whom applications should be submitted. Our recommendation is approximately 6-7. We have certainly seen more, and we have seen less. Apply to a range of schools – from those schools where admission seems very likely to those that are considered a “reach.” Students should only put on their list schools that they would be happy to attend.  

What type of testing is required for students in preparing for life beyond high school?

If your student is applying to a four-year college, they will need to take one of the following standardized tests during their junior or senior year of high school.

Students also may take SAT Subject Tests or Advanced Placement tests. These tests are used for college admissions, to determine placement in college courses, or in some circumstances, for college credit.

Many students take the SAT or ACT more than once. Some students also do some form of test preparation for the SAT or ACT. They can do so themselves, through self-guided study online, or they can enroll in a test preparation course. Many online options are available at no cost.

If your student has taken AP classes, they also take AP examinations in May of the year in which they take an AP course in school. Scores on AP tests may be used for course placement and/or course credit in college.

If your student is enrolled full-time in an International Baccalaureate program, they may also take IB examinations in the spring of their senior year.

If your student is enrolled in an Academy program that offers licensure, your student may be required to take the required testing for such licensure in order to gain employment in a particular field post high school.

If your student is enlisting in the military, they must take the ASVAB – the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, a multiple choice test administered by the U.S. Military Processing Command. Scores on the ASVAB and related subtests are used to determine both (a) the branch of the service in which the student may be eligible to serve (Coast Guard, Air Force, and Navy require the highest scores), and (b) the types of jobs and training to which the student may be assigned. The College and Career Specialist at your high school can provide information about the ASVAB.


What should our family be thinking about before making the final choice of college for my student?

College can be expensive. When considering colleges, make sure you consider all the costs of attending each college or university, including not just tuition and room and board, but also additional living expenses, activities fees, cost of books and other course supplies, travel expenses, etc. If your student receives financial aid offers, look at them carefully to determine what your actual out-of-pocket costs may be now and in the future (if, for example, there are loans offered as part of the financial aid packet. Your school counselor or college and career specialist can help you evaluate the offers, if you need help.

The costs of college are not all you should be considering. Many parents think that once their student gets admitted to college, everything is okay. Recent government statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics show that graduation rates can vary among private and public schools. And, graduation rates also may vary considerably between minority and non-minority students. Some additional questions to consider are:

  • Does the college offer counseling for first and second-year students to help them with social and academic problems?
  • Does the college reduce class size for first and second-year students to ensure more attention is paid from faculty?
  • Do all faculty members teach at least one freshman course?
  • Does the administration focus on improving its graduation rates as part of the school’s mission.

How to pay for college?

It is never too early to learn about how to pay for college and learn the language of scholarships, grants, loans, stipends, work study, full rides, etc.  For high school students, your school’s Student Services will offer information about college throughout the year. College Access Fairfax, a local non-profit organization, also offers workshops to assist families in filling out the FAFSA at many high schools during the school year. They also offer financial awareness programs for middle school students. There is information about paying for college online. A good place to start is the College Board’s website.

Every college-bound 12th grade student should complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. It costs nothing to apply, but every year thousands of families do not take advantage of this federal help. Do not assume that you do not qualify for federal financial aid. You cannot receive financial aid unless you apply for it. Complete the FAFSA and any other additional forms some colleges require (such as the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) paperwork).

To apply for FAFSA your student must submit the application online.  You can submit the application beginning October 1 of 12th grade. File as early as possible. Get organized with information you will need to complete the FAFSA. Gather together your W-2 forms and other records of sources of income; current bank statements; mortgage information; stocks and bonds and any unusual family financial circumstances, such as unemployment or medical expenses not covered by insurance.  

If you want to get an idea of how much college might cost your family, and whether or not you might be eligible for federal financial aid, you can use the FAFSA 4Caster to get an early estimate. 

Some colleges are committed to full funding for needy students. These schools tend to be highly selective, and admission cannot be guaranteed for any applicant.

What is a Pell Grant?

Federal Pell Grants are financial aid for qualifying low-income students who meet eligibility requirements. Because a Pell Grant is a grant, and not a loan, the money received does not have to be paid back.  The amount awarded by a Pell Grant changes yearly. The maximum award for 2018-19 school year was $6,095, slightly higher for the following year. Not all students get the maximum award. 

If your student is eligible for a Pell Grant, they receive the full amount they qualify for, regardless of other financial aid they may receive.

For students who plan to attend community college (NOVA), the maximum Pell Grant can pay for all expense to the student. 

Students apply for Pell Grants by submitting the FAFSA.

Can the student get financial aid if they are undocumented or the parent or guardian is undocumented?

Students who are undocumented, including students who qualify for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), are not eligible for federal financial aid but may be eligible for state or college financial aid or for private scholarships. Speak with your school counselor or College and Career Center specialist about scholarships and aid available to students who are undocumented.

If a student is a US citizen but one or more parent is undocumented, the student is eligible for federal financial aid.