Thursday, March 8, 2012

College Checklists

Spring.  Flowers are blooming.  Birds are singing.  There is more daylight.  People are walking the DC metro area streets with a spring in their step.

However, spring is also the time when our high-school juniors are starting to panic about beginning the college process, and our seniors are starting to freak-out because they are getting decisions back and also discovering the strange new disease known as "senioritis," the symptoms of which include a lack of motivation to do anything, a propensity to making "guest appearances" versus being a "regular character" at school, and a marked disdain for things like "homework" and "tests."

Never a dull moment in school counseling.

So, what should our juniors be thinking about right now as they start to prep themselves for the college process?  The Choice blog from the New York Times has published a list of tasks for juniors to be considering right now as they look to post-secondary life.  It's definitely worth a look.  At my school, we are also currently educating our juniors on the college process.  My list includes several items from The Choice, but also a few others:
  • If you do nothing else, keep your grades up as high as you can.  Considering that one of the most important factors in college admissions is the transcript and the grades earned, this is my number one piece of advice I give to students.  Spending more time on homework, getting extra help or tutoring, and upping their game with regards to studying for tests and quizzes are, in my opinion, the most worthwhile use of their time.  I remind them that their final grades in their junior year are the last full year of grades that colleges will see during the admissions process, so make them count.
  • Start to have the discussions with your family about college search parameters.  Students need to have open and honest conversations with their families about where they are going to focus their search.  The discussions should include the size of campus they are looking for (large or small?), location of campus (in-state or out-of-state? rural, suburban, or urban?), majors and programs (looking at schools that do not have a student's choice of college major, athletic or arts program, or extra-curriculars will probably not be a strong use of time), public or private (cost can be a concern), and price-range.  This last one can be a difficult conversation for families, but it is important that the students have an understanding of how much money their parents can realistically put into their college education before they start searching--will they need to get a certain amount of scholarship money to attend favorite schools on their list?  Will it cut certain schools off their list?  How much loan debt are students and their families willing to accrue?  Once these factors are discussed and determined, it will make the search process much more focused.
  • Plan your standardized testing regime.  Most high-school juniors will initially take the SAT or ACT tests in the spring of the 11th grade year.  Students should know the difference between them--there is a great video on that gives the basics.  Students should go to the College Board and ACT websites to sign up for the tests and get information on dates, etc.  Also, for some highly-competitive schools, SAT II's are required.  Students should consider taking these around the same time as the AP subject tests, as that is when they may feel the most prepared.  Some students will want to do SAT or ACT preparation--there are books on that they can work with or they can check area resources for online-preparation (we utilize Method Test Prep through Naviance) or for face-to-face classes.
  • Go on or plan college visits.  These should be structured, planned, visits.  Students and families need to make arrangements well ahead of time (at least two to three weeks) for a campus tour that could also include visits to classes, programs of interest, or residence life.  The goal should be to get a feel for the campus, class-sizes, the social climate of the school (is everyone in a fraternity or sorority?  Is it a commuter school where campus empties each weekend?), as well as the accessibility of the faculty and support resources.  As I tell students, most of you will know fairly quickly whether a school "feels" right or not.  A great consideration is for families to buddy up on these trips so that one weekend/break one family takes their child and a friend, and then they swap for the next trip.  It can save everyone's sanity of there is some sharing of the "visiting" responsibilities.
  • Develop a list.  The list of schools should and can initially be broad.  As there are more visits made and information gathered over the summer, the list will narrow.  It is important, though, that from the outset there is some diversity with regards to reach schools, "probable" schools, and safety schools.  It is important to have a grasp of the GPA of the student and, if possible, test scores, in relation to a school's average.
  • Get to know your counselor.  This is from The Choice blog's list, and it is a good one.  Having conversations with your school counselor can help us get to know you more as we begin to plan writing your letter of recommendation, and we also have a lot of experience in this area--we can supply students and families with a wealth of information and, through knowing the student well, make solid recommendations as the process goes forward.   
Our seniors also still have some tasks left to do with regards to their college process.  Again, The Choice Blog has a list of tasks for our soon-to-be-graduated students.  Here are some of them along with my own:
  • Try not to panic.  The wait can be so hard, especially as admissions decisions go out at different times for a lot of students.  So often I hear "my friend already heard, and I haven't.  I hope that doesn't mean I didn't get accepted."  Colleges make decisions at different times for different reasons--trying to figure out what the randomness means will drive you crazy, so try to stay relaxed.  At least during the application process they are actively "doing" things--I think the waiting is the hardest part of all.
  • Shore up your financial aid documents.  Every year I have a student who is waiting and waiting to get a financial aid package from a school, and we come to find out they never filled out the FAFSA form.  It is important that every student, regardless of income, fill out this form and that they check in during March with the financial aid office to discuss the offers or, if they have not yet received one after an offer of admission, to figure out what might be holding it up. 
  • Follow up on deferrals.  This is one from The Choice blog, and something I've been talking about with more of my seniors this year.  If a school deferred you in the early admissions process, it is appropriate to send an update if there have been additional achievements.  It is also fine to send an e-mail or letter directly to your admissions counselor to let them know that you are still very interested in that school.  And then they need to leave it alone.  Multiple submissions, phone-calls, and letters that are only restating what is already known and in the file are not appropriate and may even work against a student. 
  • Keep your grades up and try to combat "senioritis."  After they've been admitted and accepted, so many seniors think they can just stop working for the rest of the year.  One of the other counselors in my building has letters up in his office that colleges sent to past seniors rescinding their offer of admissions because of low grades on the final transcript. It can happen, so seniors need to do their best to stay engaged in the process.  If they're in AP classes, a reminder that good scores on the tests can save them money and bypass general education requirements might help.  For others, sticking to a hard and fast routine even when motivation is low might help them to manage their courses through May or June.
  • Keep your counselor informed and feel free to use us to bounce ideas off about where to go.  This is another great one from The Choice blog's list.  I am always more than happy to discuss with my students their struggle to make a final choice.  We look at the pros and cons of each school, from location to financial aid award to programs and majors.  We can be a great sounding board as they work in picking the best school for them.
The college process is a lengthy one for both students and families.  By sharing information and giving them tasks, we can help them to be better prepared in the fall of their senior year, and help them to make the most informed choice possible when it comes time to accept in the spring.

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