De-Stressing the College Search

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 everyone involved.

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 will answer many of your financial aid questions and help your child with other scholarship searches, including a link to

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 understanding.

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, 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 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 successful one.

– Ellen Coburn
Guidance Counselor & Writing Coach