There have been enough comedies made about getting into college to know it can be a head-spinning affair.
So what's a college-minded student to do? For the best advice, Suburban Parent turned to admissions professionals from around the suburbs, across the state and beyond.
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Challenge yourself in high school
Good grades go a long way -- but so do the right classes. Colleges like to see students who not only do well in high school but also make the most of coursework available to them.
"Too many students take the bare minimum to graduate their senior year and take nothing beyond those requirements. My advice is for them to challenge themselves by taking a solid, four-year college preparatory curriculum and for them to remember their senior year is still important. We don't just look at grades but we also look at the rigor of coursework they've selected in relation to what their school offers," said Carlene Klass, dean of undergraduate admissions at DePaul University in Chicago.
"When we talk about academic performance, it really goes beyond grades. It's about taking advantage of the curriculum at your particular high school and doing well," said Stacey Kostell, assistant provost and director of undergraduate admissions at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Don't hesitate to investigate
High schoolers who wait for senior year to look toward college can back themselves into a corner. It's better to get cracking as a sophomore or junior, while there's still time to explore campuses and fine-tune your academic schedule.
"Choosing what college to go to is a very big decision, and trying to figure that out senior year, really, it's too late. Do they necessarily have to start visiting campuses when they're 14 years old? Probably not. But they should start to have conversations with parents and supporters about what their interests are and where they want to go. That can change certainly. But it's important they start thinking about it early so they can consider the consequences of what they're doing in high school and how that's going to help them get to where they want to be," said Erin Reid, assistant director of admissions at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb.
"Frequently, students seem to be blindsided; they're a senior in high school and didn't realize that college X required two years of the same foreign language, or required four years of math rather than three. It's nice to start as a sophomore, just taking the baby steps to know what the requirements are. The spring of their junior year is not uncommon either," said Barbara Rupp, director of admissions for the University of Missouri in Columbia.
Don't bite off too much
Some high school students eye a dozen colleges. Others pick just one. The best approach begins somewhere in the middle and ends with a few top choices.
"I see some students applying to very high numbers of colleges and universities and probably spending a semester's worth of tuition on application fees, which doesn't make a lot of sense. It's important to start narrowing them down at the end of the junior or senior year. If a kid knows where they want to go and has a first-choice school, you fill out two others and hope for the best," Kostell said.
"It's OK if the list is long on the front end, when a student is really just starting to think about things. They can narrow it down as they start to research. When they really come to a handful they're seriously considering, that's when they can start to schedule visits to see the campuses for themselves. The visit piece really helps narrow that list down to a top three, and then they have some time to make that decision once they find out where they've been accepted," Reid said.
Visit if you can
There's no shortage of virtual tours online these days. The bad news is they're no comparison to actually stepping foot on campus. If at all possible, students should visit their top selections before applying -- maybe more than once.
"The campus visit is important. Of course, every college or university will tell you, 'Once they come to our campus, they're going to want to be here.' All of us like to do a good job showing our campus. But the reality is they get to decide: Will I fit in here? Do the students seem happy? The problem is, it's not always realistic (to visit), especially if a student is coming from far away. The good news is students can get a lot of information online, and there are now some decent (tour) videos. But I don't think any of them are the same as a college visit if they can possibly pull it off," Rupp said.
"My advice would be to make multiple visits to the top schools students are considering. Oftentimes, I think students don't do as thorough an investigation as they might be able to. There's a ton of information online and in guidebooks, obviously, but we find that students who make multiple visits usually are able to determine the best fit for them overall. Follow-up visits are often when they'll meet coaches, faculty and people in their co-curricular areas of interest," said Martin Sauer, dean of admission and financial aid at North Central College in Naperville.
Parents, know your place
Parents can be a voice of wisdom (and financial realism) for the college-bound. But don't forget: it's the student who must demonstrate the effort.
"It's important for parents to ask the questions the student is not thinking about. Really, the student and parent play off each other to fill in the gaps because they ask different questions. But it's also important to let the student take ownership of the process. Sometimes there are parents who fill out the application for their student, and sometimes we guess the parent might have written an essay or something like that. We hope that doesn't happen a lot because it's a huge no-no. If the parent is doing too much for them before they've graduated high school, they may not be as successful out on their own. So, allowing them to call the school and ask questions is important when they're going through the application process. Letting them take ownership of the process is crucial to their success," Reid said.
"One of the best things parents can do is encourage their child to take ownership of the process. They should encourage their child to call, to check on their application status, to call with questions about next steps. We certainly respect that there's a certain level of parent involvement these days, which is completely understandable. But it also does demonstrate a student's interest in succeeding, in their drive, in their maturity, and in their interest in the school if they're the ones actively contacting the university. And that can certainly play a role in admission decisions," Klaas said.
Find money (it's out there)
Don't be overwhelmed by the bazillion hits you get Googling for scholarships. Many universities have detailed information about them online, and services like FastWeb.com can help refine a broader search. Also, get started early -- and don't forget to check within your own community.
"In some ways, it's easier than it was before because of the availability of information on websites. We tell students that in addition to looking on college websites for schools at the top of their list, you should talk to the folks in the admission office and tell them what your strengths are, what your interests are. Make sure you're exploring, and make sure you're an advocate for any opportunities you might be eligible for. We also tell students to check with your employer, your mom or dad's employer, and any church you might be involved in. Outside scholarships often come from your local connections," Sauer said.
"For the schools where you're applying, find out what the scholarship procedures are. At U of I, our admission application is our application for scholarships. And, again, this is where early research comes in. A lot of other Big Ten schools have automatic awards if you have this ACT score or that GPA. One point could be $10,000, so it's important to research those and know where you need to be," Kostell said.
Want to impress? Then don't breeze through your admission and scholarship applications. The folks who read them can tell the difference.
"We read thousands of applications each year, and you can tell who puts time and effort into it and who doesn't. Also, make sure you're being authentic, rather than trying to be someone you think we want you to be," Klaas said.
Tardiness is a common but sometimes fatal flaw in the admission and financial aid process. Maybe it goes without saying, but be sure to pay attention to deadlines -- or risk losing out.
"All schools handle things differently, so it's really important for the student to look into deadlines and recommended submission dates ahead of time. They need to make sure they're putting themselves in the best position possible and don't miss any key dates," Klaas said.
"You hate when you see a student who applies in January and, by not applying by Dec. 1, they lost out on a substantial scholarship that they really could have used," Rupp said.
Watch that email address
Don't forget, applicants. Your email address may be one of the first things the school of your dreams learns about you. If your handle is less than professional, consider getting a new one.
"We see a lot of email addresses that don't really reflect positively on the student. Without giving some examples, you could certainly start to infer things. I would encourage students to think about whether their address is appropriate or if they should consider creating one for college applications," Klass said.
Don't be a stranger
Turns out, admitted students can get involved on campus even before they arrive. Most colleges and universities now offer opportunities for students to network online. On-site orientation programs also can help a student get settled in.
"Some campuses have Facebook-like pages for admitted students or some kind of social site where they can connect with other students before they even get there. It's also very important to attend orientations offered by the college or university. It's not just about the academics and getting the students registered in the right classes. It's also about getting them to realize what they can do to engage on campus. The quicker they engage and meet other people, the more likely they are to be happy and to be retained as a student. That's everybody's goal," Rupp said.