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Quest for the right college well underway

For most of us, October is synonymous with changing leaves, cooler temperatures and fall football weekends. But for stressed-out seniors and panic-stricken parents, it also represents another seasonal rite of passage — the Quest for College.

As someone who’s “been there/done that” with one child, I’m glad to have a much-needed break this year. But having experienced the joys of never-ending application forms, tours and interviews, I know all too well that the time to prepare for college isn’t the fall semester of the student’s senior year.

While my child was fortunate to earn a spot at an outstanding institution, there are many lessons that we learned as a family by experience. While the college application process is a defining step in a student’s independence beyond high school, it is also a lesson in responsibility and accountability — key ingredients for a successful college career.

While my child was proactive in managing the process, we learned that there are several critical influences beyond one individual student or family. Effective student placement also mirrors a community’s broader level of educational advocacy. Teachers, counselors, administrators and school board members all play a vital role in maximizing student potential. As in any effort, effectiveness is greater when everyone is working toward positive outcomes.

While I’m not a college planning expert, here are some observations from a parent who has been through it.

Begin early

While no one is suggesting that you lock into a college or career choice in the ninth grade, begin the planning/preparation dialogue early. Start talking with your child about possible areas of interest based on academic strengths. Encourage your child to talk to friends, neighbors, etc. about the skills that are required in their professions.

Ask counselors about career guidance resources that may be available. Also, encourage your student to start developing a resume on the computer. Keeping track of accomplishments on an annual basis is much easier than trying to remember something four years ago on a deadline crunch.

Be proactive

Many parents place their trust in “the system” and assume that administrators or counselors will direct the college search process. As the saying goes, “if it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.” Avoid potential conflicts by taking the time to understand what assistance the high school does/does not provide — and when.

Don’t be afraid to ask other parents and students about their college-search experience — what did they do effectively, what would they do differently, what resources were essential to the process? How early did they start? Most peers/parents are happy to share their perspective.

Assess priorities

Ask your child what he/she hopes to achieve from the college experience in relation to longer-term goals. Is your child thinking beyond a two-year or four-year experience?

What extracurricular/leadership/community service activities would complement those goals? While your student is still in high school, how can you maximize strengths and improve weaknesses?

Do your homework

This relates to academic quality, financial demands and campus life. What do successful students at this particular college or university share in common? How competitive are the entrance requirements? Does this institution possess a strong reputation in your child’s desired area of study?

Is a city environment or rural environment preferred? Does the student thrive in a very large setting or is a smaller campus a better fit? What are the financial requirements of attending this particular institution and what scholarship/financial aid options are available?

How do existing students rate friendliness and/or leadership development opportunities? How safe is the campus? What are the credentials of the faculty members? What are the advantages of early decision versus regular decision?

Plan ahead for campus visits

It’s tough to make a decision based on one brief visit or no visit at all, so plan ahead during your child’s high school career.

While this may seem obvious, go when students are on campus, not during summer or winter breaks. See if your student can sit in on classes and visit with faculty members beyond the admissions office.

Read campus publications, and talk to students who are already there. Write down questions/impressions after the visit for further reference.

Get to know your school counselors

In larger schools, it can be difficult for counselors to know students as well as they would like. Make the effort and visit regarding goals/expectations in the relationship.

Get organized

Set up a filing system and master calendar as you prepare applications for forthcoming deadlines. Make a checklist of all items to be included as you prepare packets. Give references sufficient planning time and detailed information so they may prepare strong recommendation letters — don’t just drop off a résumé at the last minute.

Make sure your student plans ahead for the numerous essays that he/she will write-at one school alone, my daughter had to write six original essays. Edit and proofread — then do it again.

Be sure to thank teachers/faculty/business/civic leaders who take time to write references.

A positive experience

In closing, it’s important to note that while the college application process is a familiar one for teachers, counselors and administrators who go through it year after year, it’s often unfamiliar territory for first-time students and parents.

Subsequently, mutual respect, consideration and patience go a long way in making the experience a positive one for all involved.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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