What shirt will you wear? It’s National College Decision Day! Here’s the ultimate guide to not screwing up the college choice process

Seniors at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans show off their college shirts during the last full week of school in April. Pictured let to right are Austin Boudreaux, University of Southern Mississippi; Justin Levy, University of Alabama; Jonathan Gacharna, Northwestern University; Les Levy, Jr., Stanford University; Elden Patrick Newburger, Auburn University; Nicolas Benedetto, University of Alabama; Brandon Hebert, Louisiana State University; and Alex Hassinger, University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

By Christine Gacharná

NOTE: High school JUNIORS (and parents), the clock is now ticking. Keep reading to learn what my college-bound teens and I wish we had known last year on May 1! I’ve compiled the information below to help you get a head-start on the process.

Dreams, travels, college visits, SAT, Test prep, decisions, staring at the blank page, ACT, endless online forms, fees, deadlines, recommendations, burnout, FAFSA, CSS Profile, denials, acceptance, announcements — welcome to National College Decision Day 2017.

Christine Gacharna

For the past 12 months, college-bound high school seniors (and the adults who’ve stood behind them) have actively participated in the college selection process, looking at Ivy League schools
and colleges and making sure the future is as bright as possible. Today marks the culmination of an entire year’s work, celebrated mostly by posting images on social media sporting college sweatshirts of choice. Before making your decision, it’s important to do plenty of research into different colleges, for example using these Education Reference and Research Links.

Only today is not the end; it’s just the beginning.

National College Decision Day is initiation for a whole new group of unsuspecting people: today’s high school juniors (and their parents), many of whom are up against deadlines and decisions they aren’t even aware of yet.

“The one thing that I have learned from this process is that despite all of my efforts to become informed, I know very little,” shared Marcela Musilek of Laguna Beach, Calif. Her son, Marcel, chose California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) to study engineering this fall. “The many statistics listed in comparing various universities are misleading. Discerning facts from hype while trying to best guide emotional teens is not an easy task.”

What follows is an overview of the process that parents and students should start considering:

  • Decide where to apply
  • Consider tuition
  • Identify & meet deadlines
  • Grades matter
  • Understand ACT, SAT, & standardized tests
  • Extracurricular activities
  • Write an essay
  • In the end, it has to be the student’s choice

Decide where to apply

Make a list

Darian Breshears chose the University of Oregon

Jodi Breshears of Portland, Oregon, says her daughter, Darian, knew she wanted to go to the University of Oregon.

“I don’t know if it was from years of going to Oregon football games,” Breshears says. “I encouraged her to do a few tours and apply other places but she just wasn’t interested. We didn’t even do the Oregon tour until after she was accepted — although that totally confirmed that she made the right decision.”

The Breshears family is surprisingly typical. Many students have an idea of where they want to go, especially if they are looking at an in-state school, and there isn’t a whole lot of discussion about out-of-state or private schools.

Even in these cases, it’s still a good idea for students to have a back-up plan in case that initial application doesn’t result in an extended offer.

“My advice to a junior starting the college search process would be to make a list of what qualities he or she would like to have in a school, do research to see what the admission standards are, and plan visits to as many as possible,” says Braydin Sones, a high school senior from Lorton, Virginia. “Work hard on increasing your SAT scores, be sure to apply to enough schools, and include a ‘reach’ school!”

At “reach” schools, a student’s academic credentials fall outside those of typical freshman applicants, or the school has gold-plated admissions standards (think “Ivy”), or the number of applicants far exceeds the number of slots available, pushing the acceptance rates below 10 percent.

With “probable” schools, the student has a chance of being offered admission by meeting, but not necessarily exceeding, academic credentials of typical freshman applicants.

Penn State is a third generation Sones family tradition. Pictured is 3-month-old Braydin with his father, Dwight, who graduated in 1988. Dwight’s father, aunt, uncle, two brothers and a few cousins all attended Penn State. Braydin will be the third generation to enroll this fall.

At “safety” schools, the student exceeds the requirements for admission, and the student can reasonably expect to be extended an offer.

In making a list of potential schools to consider, students need to be thinking about size, location, distance from home, weather, proximity to activities, transportation options, or proximity to geographical locations such as mountains or a beach.

Family considerations play a huge part in a student’s decision, too.

Braydin’s mom, Dana, took him for a closer look at Pennsylvania State University in April, the same month the Sones family broke ground on a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Frederick, Maryland. The grand opening is scheduled for mid-September — about 45 minutes from a Penn State branch campus.

“He would spend the first two years there, and then head to main campus with ambitions on their business school,” Dana says. “This would give him an opportunity to be home on the weekends and be a part of the business — if he chooses to.”

Sones says the campus visit gave them the opportunity to meet with a finance representative, an academic counselor, and a student leader and honors program student.

“We specifically learned that Braydin was pre-accepted into the School of Business as long as his GPA and class requirements are met after his sophomore year,” Sones said. “We also learned exactly how his scholarship will be applied to his tuition. It confirmed that we were making the best decision.”

Consider tuition

The devil is in the detail

And, of course, there’s tuition costs.

“It’s important to have a conversation about finances as a family,” says Allie Timberlake, College Placement Counselor at Jesuit High School in New Orleans, “because at the end of the day, it is a consideration.”

Timberlake says depending on the student’s major and the curriculum offered, there are some schools that are worth stretching the family budget to attend, but that’s why it’s so important the discussion happen as a family so that everyone is on board and there aren’t any surprises or heartbreak on May 1.

“The whole financial aid process was a huge learning curve for me,” says Jodi Rauls, whose daughter Gabi is a high school senior in Charleston, South Carolina. “We had a long conversation one day about what an ‘EFC’ is and what that means!”

The EFC, or “Expected Family Contribution,” is a number calculated by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). All students interested in financial aid for college need to complete this form, which includes a parents’ reported income from tax returns. The FAFSA then spits out the number known as the family’s EFC.

“There’s a misconception out there that ‘Oh, if your kid does well in school, they’ll get a scholarship,’ ” Rauls says. “And to a degree, yes, but we had to search them out, and it wasn’t every school.”

Not all schools have merit aid, the Rauls family learned, and not all schools offer “need based” aid, which is determined by the family’s EFC.

Gabi Rauls chose the University of Wisconsin

The scariest part for Gabi? She wasn’t initially involved in the FAFSA process with her parents, so she didn’t have a clear idea of the family budget before the big talk.

“Once I had finished everything, I kind of realized, wow, I can’t afford 90 percent of the colleges I just applied to!” Gabi says. “I’m like, oh no, where am I going to go?”

Of the schools Gabi applied to, one was an Ivy League “reach” school, one “probable” school, “basically an Ivy,” and one out-of-state school. None of the three gave her merit-based aid.

“That was the freakout moment for me,” Gabi says. “I’m going to end up somewhere I don’t want to go.”

Gabi says her best advice to today’s high school juniors would be to apply for scholarships as soon as possible.

“And as many as you can,” she says, “because what I didn’t know going into my senior year is that the really big scholarships, the $50,000 and $20,000 ones, you have to apply for those your junior year. I assumed I could apply whenever.”

Identify & meet deadlines

365 days = 5 months

November 1 is a big application deadline.

Yep; college suddenly just got real. This is happening, and it’s happening much faster than students or parents realize.

November 1 is not the deadline for every college or university, and it’s typically not the only deadline a school offers. If one of the schools on a student’s list has an early decision option and that school is a student’s first choice, it’s best to meet it.

On top of application deadlines, high schools have their deadlines, and the standardized tests such as the ACT and SAT have registration deadlines.

And then just for sport, many colleges require that a student complete the ACT and SAT before the school’s application deadline, which means if the college application deadline is January 1, the students applying cannot submit scores from a February test to accompany that application.

The author’s children. Jonathan Gacharna chose Northwestern University; his sister, Lexi, chose Virginia Tech.

Kelly Wild, College Placement Counselor at Brother Martin High School in New Orleans, says she has worked hard to devise a system for her students that makes it easier to wrestle deadlines and requirements.

“Louisiana schools want applications in early, and they don’t require essays,” Wild says, “so I give seniors a Labor Day deadline for those applications. That reserves our energy to focus on the schools that need essays.”

Wild encourages her students to have the remainder of their applications completed by Thanksgiving because, in her experience, teachers and students typically don’t want to be working over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays to finish writing essays and recommendations.

Speaking of recommendations, Wild says, she encourages students to choose teachers from their junior year to write letters of recommendation since those teachers had a full year to get to know them. Senior-year teachers will be just getting a feel for who they are as students when the recommendation needs to be submitted.

“I know that sounds really far away, but we’re going to blink and August will be here,” Wild says. “Students should be working on their Common App essays this summer.”

Grades matter

*sigh* Your parents were right (again)

Grades matter!

“Junior year is the last full year of grades that colleges will see,” Timberlake explains, “so it’s really important to end on an upswing.”

Some high schools allow students to re-take courses for a higher grade. Others don’t. Still others will allow remediation, but only up to a certain grade (for example, if a student earns an “F” and remediates the class to earn an “A,” the highest grade the school might award on the transcript would be a “C.” Individual states and schools vary on this policy, but it doesn’t hurt to ask the question if there’s a grade on a student’s transcript that causes an overall GPA to plummet.

“It depends on the schools the student is applying to,” Wild says. “What Stanford considers rigorous is different from LSU. It depends on the selectivity of the college.”

Yes, students still have their senior year to improve their GPA. Many colleges like to see students putting forth the effort to succeed in school, and an upward trend in GPA is a positive indicator that colleges look for.

Senioritis sets in come January or February, and many students who get an early acceptance to college are accepted on a “provisional” term, meaning they must submit their transcripts again in February or even April to secure their spot.

Grades are the best indicator of student success in college academics. Colleges want to accept students who are serious about succeeding in their programs.

Sometimes, a student’s grades suffer because of a life event.

“If you have a job because you are helping your parents cover the cost of tuition at your private high school and you work 3-6 days a week, this is something your college needs to know about you,” Wild says. “If students have a sick family member or anything else that affected their GPA, it’s very important they convey this in the application.”

Understand ACT, SAT, & standardized tests

What’s a SAT Subject Test?

Should I take the ACT or the SAT?

Do I have to complete the essay portion?

Can I retake the test if my scores aren’t good?

Do I need to take the SAT Subject Tests?

How can I prepare for these tests?

Many parents and high school juniors don’t fully understand what these questions mean, let alone know the answers to them.

Students aren’t looking for the “right” or “wrong” answers to these questions per se; rather, students need to find the specific answer given to them by the colleges where they’ll be applying.

Either a student has taken these tests or hasn’t, and has either met the deadline for submitting the test with the application or hasn’t.

Yes, students can take the ACT and the SAT multiple times. Students have all summer to prepare — in fact, some students enroll in summer courses designed to improve their scores. Everything is available depending on a student’s individual circumstances — from free test prep online to extensive paid online or on-location courses.

Students should make the decision to do as well on these tests as he or she possibly can, as these test scores will translate into acceptances, scholarships, and merit based honors and awards during their senior year.

If a college requires additional standardized tests, such as SAT Subject Tests, and the student does not complete the test before the deadline, the college will simply withdraw the student’s application as incomplete.

Extracurricular activities

Demonstrated interest = quality over quantity

Colleges want to see three-dimensional students standing in front of them. Universities want real applicants who have faced real experiences, challenges, successes, and/or problems in the real world. Most college admissions pages will clarify that while grades are important, they would prefer a student participated in athletics, student government, clubs, or volunteer organizations.

While it’s important for students to be involved in activities, quality trumps quantity.

“Colleges know what students are doing if they join a bunch of clubs their senior year,” Timberlake says. “It’s better if they pick one or two and contribute in a meaningful way.”

For example, Timberlake says, if the student has been involved in only one activity but for a long time, he or she should look to take on a leadership role in that activity.

Timberlake says “demonstrated interest” begins the summer before a student’s senior year. Students should initiate a service project (outside of any requirements their high school may impose), career shadow a professional (for example, a doctor, architect, or engineer), and/or enroll in a summer program, especially in science or technology.

“If the student cannot go far,” Timberlake suggests, “he or she can take an enrichment class at a community college.”

The benefit to the student is a win-win: even if they don’t enjoy the experience, they’ve learned something tremendous and valuable about themselves, what they are interested in studying, and what they might want to focus on in the future.

“Students don’t realize how impressive and important that is,” Timberlake says.

How a student spends his or her time tells a college a lot about what kind of person he or she is.

“Many students are surprised to hear that jobs count,” Wild says. “If a student has 20 activities on their resume, the college might see that as spreading themselves too thin”

Write an essay

Set yourself apart

2017-2018 Common App Essay Prompts

Unlike grades or standardized test scores, the college application essay is one aspect of the process where students have a measure of control.

“The essay is really the first place where the student can separate themselves from anyone who looks like them academically,” Timberlake says.

Timberlake says the essay portion is often the most daunting part of the process for students because high school curriculum doesn’t teach students how to write these kinds of essays.

“It’s a story that they tell about themselves and it’s super important,” Timberlake says. “It has to be outstanding.”

College application essays are designed to provide students an opportunity for personal expression and original thought. While some schools don’t require essays, others require multiple essays.

Applicants to Northwestern University, for example, complete two sets of essays: essays appearing on the Common Application or Coalition Application, and the Northwestern Writing Supplement essay.

The essay prompts and word limit guidelines invite students to answer each question in detail while also challenging them to edit their work in a concise and clear manner.

Some schools don’t require essays. Again, Wild encourages students to get applications submitted to these schools before the Labor Day holiday.

“Initially, I had 15 colleges that I was like, ‘oh I’m going to apply, and I’m going to get recs for all 15!” Gabi says. “Yeah. As the deadlines crept closer, I’d finished my top nine and I looked at the leftovers and I thought, ‘You know, I’ve never even been there. I just realized the work that I’d have to put into those essays wouldn’t be worth it.”

“The most daunting part of the whole process was the extensive amount of paperwork and applications for each university,” says Braydin. “There are a lot of essays to write and that is extremely time-consuming.”

In the end, it has to be the student’s choice

The Gut Factor:

In the end, students need to stay true to their own experiences to make their own choice.

“Do what you want, but not what your friends are doing,” Timberlake advises. “Choose a school where you will be comfortable because if you are not comfortable, you’re not going to get involved. Employers want to see what you’ve done, where you’ve gone, how you involved yourself in college.”

Timberlake says if a student is really stuck, she prods them to identify what they *don’t* want, which in turn makes it more clear to them what they are looking for. An easy way to start identifying what a student doesn’t want is to take a college tour near home, even if the student has no intention of applying.

Gabi Rauls sports her Badger mascot attire at the University of Wisconsin

It’s important for students to visit the campus before making their decision final.

“A student won’t really know what it’s going to be like until he or she actually gets there and can feel the feel the personalities of the student and the school merging,” Wild says.

Gabi Rauls said her decision to attend Wisconsin had nothing to do with her parents being from that state or having family nearby.

“I applied to Wisconsin because it had one of the best biology programs,” Gabs says. “I applied to a lot of highly regarded schools, so it wasn’t that they didn’t have good programs. I just felt Wisconsin fit my needs the best. I felt like I belonged there when I stepped on campus, and that was the only school where I got that feeling.”

Gabi pauses, and then says, “I can see myself in this light gray parka with fur on the hood. I’ve got it all figured out. My wardrobe at least. I don’t know about the rest.”

Christine Gacharná has two high school seniors graduating this spring. She learned about National College Decision Day on May 1, 2016, one year and what seems a whole lifetime ago. That experience sparked the inspiration for her to create essaypalooza! Sign up on Facebook for a free 21-day challenge for rising seniors to get a jumpstart on their college application essays.

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