Parents often ask, “When is the best time to begin the college planning process? Should
we be talking about colleges with our children while they are still in middle school? Is
it better to hold off until freshman year in high school? Or should we wait until the
guidance counselor makes the first move?
What to do and when to do it are important questions, but fortunately the answers
are less complicated than you may think. And the good news is that if you follow some
simple guidelines, taking them step by step over time, what can be a very stressful
experience becomes, instead, a period of exploration and intriguing options for
It helps to think of the college admission process in 4 parts: 1) financial planning; 2)
building a strong academic and extracurricular record; 3) researching and compiling a
list of colleges and universities to consider; and 4) completing the application process.
Let’s look briefly at each segment:
Step One: Think about finances
Some parents and grandparents begin saving for a child’s college education as soon as
the child is born. Others decide that when the time comes, they will tap other savings
and rely heavily on financial aid, choosing only among the most affordable colleges. This
is a personal decision, but my recommendation is to read about your options sooner
rather than later. You may want to consider a 529 Plan, specifically designed to save
for college. Many people select this option, but you should understand it fully before
committing, as there are important restrictions built into the plans. The Best Way to
Save for College; A Complete Guide to 529 Plans, 2011-2012 by Joseph F. Hurley is a
good place to start.
As time draws closer, your son or daughter should research college scholarship
opportunities through the high school guidance department and the internet. Guidance
counselors usually keep a file of local scholarship opportunities for which seniors
and sometimes juniors can apply. These may include the Rotary Club, Women’s
Club, and Parent/Teacher Association in your town, to name just a few. The website
www.FinAid.org will answer many of your financial aid questions and help your child
with other scholarship searches, including a link to www.fastweb.com.
Step Two: Build a strong academic and extra-curricular record
This begins officially in the freshman year of high school. Colleges
do not review a child’s elementary or middle school report cards, nor do they ask
for information on extracurricular activities prior to grade 9. However, it’s
important to realize that much of what students accomplish in high school begins
in childhood and the pre-teen years. Everything from an interest in reading, a
fascination with history, a love of numbers and science and technology, as well
as enthusiasm for sports, the arts and service to others — all these and more
may become evident and should be nurtured at an early age.
Remember, though, that colleges are no longer focused solely on the “well-rounded”
applicant. (They now care more about a well-rounded class of applicants.) If your
son or daughter genuinely enjoys a wide range of activities, that’s fine for a while.
Inevitably, though, you’ll see that the pressures of doing well in an appropriately
challenging high school curriculum require giving up some activities. Thus, the girl who
has been taking dance lessons since she was 6, along with gymnastics, art classes, and
horseback riding, will probably want to play sports in high school, perhaps star in the
spring musical, and make the honor roll every marking period. Some things will have
to go! Happily, you will learn that colleges are much more interested in students who
pursue a single “passion” or two, in depth, rather than those who spread themselves so
thin that they cannot delve deeply into any of their talents.
With regard to academics, students should tackle the most challenging course load
they can handle throughout all 4 years of high school. If a regular college preparatory
(CP) curriculum is appropriate based on previous grades, standardized test scores, and
motivation, then that is what your child should take. If he or she is particularly strong
in English, for instance, perhaps that is the subject to consider for honors and advanced
placement (AP) courses as time goes on. You will hear over and over again that the
colleges are seeking honors and AP courses, and you will feel the pressure to have your
child sign up for those. AP Chemistry or AP European History may be a good decision,
but be sure that choice is made for the right reasons. There are fine colleges for
average, above-average, and outstanding students. The most important consideration
is always whether a particular college and a particular student are a “good match.”
Step Three: Research and compile a college list
Gathering this information is something that parents may want to begin on their own
before their child is ready to talk about it. That’s fine.
Just do it in private! You may find it enlightening to search the web for information
about colleges and visit their individual websites. But in my experience as a high
school counselor, working closely with families throughout this process, too much
information too soon can be very stressful for students. I’ve had sophomores
and juniors burst into tears in my office because they “can’t stand to hear
another word about college” from their parents. When the time is right, though,
your son or daughter will be likely to welcome and appreciate your input and
To learn about colleges, the large college guides published by Barron’s and
Princeton Review are well worth perusing. Barron’s Profiles of American
Colleges is probably the most widely used college directory. It gives college-
bound students information and guidance to help them match their academic
plans and aptitudes with the admission requirements and academic programs
of every accredited four-year college in the country. Be sure you use the most
recent edition (2012). The Princeton Review guide is smaller, targeting what its
title states are The Best 376 Colleges. As a counselor who focuses on the
college search, I am never without the Fiske Guide to the Colleges, not as
comprehensive as Barron’s, but my personal favorite for its readable format,
honest and professional approach. (No gimmicks here!)
Another useful book is Admissions Matters: What Students and Parents Need
to Know About Getting into College, by Sally Springer, Jon Reider, and Marion
Franck. This resource helps guide students and their parents as they sift through
their choices and work their way through the entire college admissions process.
Most high schools begin the college search with juniors in the beginning of their
second semester. Some guidance counselors will meet with parents, as well,
but all should be helping students create a realistic list of “reach,” “good match,”
and “safety schools to which they will apply. Your son or daughter may need to
speak with the counselor beyond regularly scheduled appointments from time to
time. Although they are busy, guidance counselors understand the college
admissions process thoroughly and students should look to them for advice.
Step Four: Complete the application process
As a final step, it encompasses many tasks over time. In order to apply to most colleges,
students should take the PSAT, the SAT &/or ACT, and possibly SAT II subject tests and
AP exams. The guidance counselor is again the person to advise your child on which
tests to take and when to take them, but an essential website for students and parents,
as well, is www.collegeboard.com, where a wealth of information can be found.
The College Board creates all of the above tests except for the ACT, so testing dates,
test prep, the college search and more can be found at this site. Even freshmen and
sophomores can benefit by becoming familiar with what this site has to offer.
For the student, completing the application process involves:
Making sure to take all required tests on schedule. This includes taking the AP exam
after successfully completing an AP course in whatever year it is taken. If a student
takes an AP Biology class as a sophomore and earns a high score on the exam that
spring, he should send it with his college applications two years later.
Becoming very familiar with the colleges on your list. Frequent visits to the school’s
website, selective emails and phone contacts with the admissions officer in charge of
your application, at least one in-person visit to the campus, which includes the official
admissions office tour, and if possible, an overnight stay on campus arranged through
the admissions office — all of these will help to set you apart as a candidate who may
well say “yes” if accepted. (And that’s what the colleges want!)
Decide with the help of your parents and guidance counselor whether you should be
applying Early Decision or Early Action to any of your schools. For many colleges, you
have a somewhat better chance of acceptance if you take this route — assuming you
are qualified, of course. If you have an absolute favorite, your credentials are a very
good match with the school, and the financial aid situation is workable, you might earn
admission before the second semester of senior year. What a great way to finish your
high school experience!
Scheduling an interview with the admissions office, if one is offered. (This would be
done ideally in conjunction with your college visit.) Preparing
for the interview in advance is always a good idea. Even outgoing students who are
generally at ease with others will benefit from a practice session with the guidance
counselor or someone else who is familiar with the process. Although the interview
may not be “evaluative” — that is, part of the decision-making process as to who is
accepted — taking the time to appear in person lets the college know that you are truly
a serious, interested candidate.
Preparing a resume of extracurricular school and community activities.
This should include all sports, clubs, activities and honors from grades 9 – 12, with an
indication of the approximate amount of time spent on each. Examples of community
activities are involvement in your church, temple, or mosque; volunteer work at a
hospital, animal shelter, or town clean-up; summer sports and clinics, part-time jobs
(paid or not), but there are many more possibilities. You should always be specific as to
the nature of your involvement and point out any leadership roles you took on.
Taking time to write the best college essays you can possibly create. Yes,
you will probably have to write more than one, so begin if you can in the summer before
senior year. There are many helpful books and online resources which provide samples
of successful essays, but the important thing to remember is to BE YOURSELF. Write in
a voice that sounds comfortable to you — forget the thesaurus! —- and imagine that
you are talking to the admissions counselor who is reading your essay. This is a very
special part of your application, your chance to open a window to yourself as a person,
revealing what the admissions committee could not learn from your transcript, resume,
or letters of recommendation.
By the way, if you have a good sense of humor and your essay lends itself to that, use it!
The counselors in the admissions offices read hundreds and hundreds of student essays,
sometimes late into the night. Yours can be special in many ways, but never be afraid to
lighten their load with a smile or two.
Carefully choosing the teachers and mentors who will write your letters of
recommendation. Abide by the directions from each separate college. If you are
supposed to send just one letter from an academic teacher, that’s what you do. If you
are not sure what is meant by “academic teacher” — does AP Art count? — call or email
your admissions counselor at the college to check. Ask your guidance counselor for
advice about which teachers to ask for recommendations and how many other letters,
if any, you should include. And by all means, ask early in the process. It’s unfair to
request a letter from someone two weeks before the application is due.
Finally, taking advantage of the Common Application online at
www.commonapp.org. Notice, that’s org, not com! This is a wonderful
timesaver, allowing you to apply to a number of member colleges all with one online
application. I have found that even some colleges not listed on the site will still accept
it, but if not, you need to use the individual college’s application on its own website.
After you have completed your application, proofread, proofread, and proofread again.
You can’t trust Spell Check to catch every error. Go through the application slowly and
carefully to be sure it’s perfect before you send it on its way.
Keep track of the deadlines for all applications and send yours in with enough time to
spare so that you and your parents can get a good night’s sleep as often as possible
during your senior year. You all deserve it!
My hope is that this article is reassuring to those of you who have been anxious about
college admissions. It is true that the college search involves many steps and a good
deal of time, but remember that getting a head start, making sure you’re organized
and informed, and staying grounded will go a long way toward making the journey a
Guidance Counselor & Writing Coach