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April/May 2009

College Prep 101
Planning Early For Your Future Success
by Avery Thibadeau


For many students, graduating from high school is the first step on the road to independence. But for students planning to attend a college or university, preparation for this one step begins much earlier—with the college application process. Many high school students feel quite a bit of anxiety about applying for school, worrying over academic preparation, application deadlines and essays, financial aid and, eventually, making the right choice. Fortunately, with organization, early preparation and using the resources at hand, the trepidation of going off to college will be secondary to the pride and exhilaration that characterize this exciting chapter in life.

Researching the Options

Early in high school, students should begin to define and pursue their interests—academic and otherwise. As these are realized, students should then begin to research college and university programs that encourage or facilitate these interests. Scott Burke, director of admissions at Georgia State University, says, “Students should engage in the college search and preparation process as soon as possible—even as early as their freshman year. They need to understand the admission requirements for the colleges of their choice and plan accordingly.” For example, do your school choices have a formula-based admissions process, where the primary factors are GPA and SAT and/or ACT scores, or is the process more of a holistic one, where personal essays, recommendations, extracurricular activities, etc., also are considered? Students should also look into taking college courses online at the schools of their choice. Online education, or distance learning, is becoming increasingly popular and is a great option for students with hectic schedules who may find it difficult to attend classes regularly on campus. The University System of Georgia Board of Regents recently implemented Georgia ONmyLINE, an online database prospective and enrolled students can use to find online degrees and course offerings among the University System’s 35 colleges and universities. (Visit for more information.)

A great resource for students planning for college is the school guidance counselor. Even at the middle and junior high school levels, the guidance counselor will help students get organized and plan their secondary school curriculum. As students progress through their high school years, they should meet with their guidance counselor regularly to focus their interests, ask questions about applying to school and gain insight into their higher education options.

College reference guides, a school’s Web site and college brochures will offer basic facts and figures about each school. According to Scott Allen, senior associate dean of admission at Emory University, most colleges, including Emory, use a database maintained by The College Board to search for students who meet certain score levels on the PSAT and SAT; the colleges then reach out to those students, typically by mailing brochures. Students should use these brochures to narrow their search, but they should also understand what the information reveals about the school. “There are a host of statistics to consider,” says David Hawkins, director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). “Median SAT/ACT scores can give you some impression of the current students’ testing abilities, the number of students enrolled tells you whether the school is large or small, and housing data can indicate whether a college is residential or primarily commuter/off-campus housing.”

An easy way to discover schools and meet with their representatives is by attending a college fair. In the fall and spring months, college admissions counselors take to the road to talk with prospective students at college fairs across the country, such as the Georgia PROBE tour, which hosts fairs all over the state from around early September to November. Various schools and shopping malls in the Metro area host these fairs, which include tens to hundreds of colleges and universities. An annual fair hosted by NACAC that typically takes place in Atlanta every late Jan. or early Feb. includes between 250 to 400-plus colleges.

By their junior or senior year of high school, students should make an effort to visit the campuses of their top schools to find one they can see themselves attending. Colleges and universities offer campus tours most weekdays, and many host open houses throughout the year. But one of the most important things to remember is to always show sincere interest in the school you’re inquiring about. A great way to do this is to ask questions; show that you researched the college and know why you’re interested in it.

Students should pay particular attention to the tuition rate and financial aid opportunities available at each school and talk to their parents about filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). “Filling out the FAFSA is an essential step toward securing financial assistance for postsecondary education. Government aid and many private scholarships refer to the FAFSA in their decision to award scholarships,” says Hawkins. Numerous financial aid options exist: student loans; independent, privately-funded scholarships; work-study programs; military aid; or merit-based scholarships from the school itself. In Georgia, graduating students who successfully complete a college-preparatory curriculum with a cumulative 3.0 GPA and plan to attend an eligible in-state college or university are rewarded financial assistance through the HOPE Scholarship program.

Appealing to Recruiters

Students must also focus on their own appeal as potential college students. Different schools will look for different academic courses on a student’s transcript, but all schools are looking for students who challenge themselves while pursuing their interests.

Many schools offer Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses for students who want to take accelerated courses. The benefits of this are multi-faceted— while students can earn college credit for these courses and learn to handle a heavier workload, colleges and universities take notice of the student’s commitment to academics. According to Hawkins, taking AP, IB or honors courses is one of the most important things students can do to prepare for college admission. “For the past 15 years, colleges and universities have consistently reported that grades in challenging coursework constitute the number one factor in the admission decision.”

One key component of a college application is standardized test scores. Colleges and universities use these scores to weigh the academic abilities of their applicants on a level playing field, so students should take these tests seriously. Companies such as Kaplan and Sylvan, and many Metro area high schools offer test preparation courses to coach students to higher scores.

It is important to realize, however, that many colleges and universities are looking for well-rounded students. Students should make an effort to get involved—in sports, the arts, or community service, but also be prepared to demonstrate how these activities contributed to their growth. “We can usually tell if students waited until the last minute to join various activities—clubs, sports, etc.—to ‘create a resume,’” says Allen. “We are looking for students who have found a passion, students who do what they do because they enjoy doing it, not because they were told to do it to appeal to colleges. We always ask ourselves what potential students are going to bring to campus. How will they make it different? How will they make it better?”

Achieving Acceptance

There is much to consider while researching schools and applying for admission. By staying organized, exploring the opportunities and resources that exist, and taking the process step by step, college-bound students should feel confident in their decisions and be ready to celebrate their achievements—high school graduation and college admission.

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