ADMISSIONS: I taught special ed in New York for a year and a half before I decided that I really wanted to work at the high school level. So I went back to school and got my masters to become a student counselor. I love working with teenagers.
ABCS & 123S: When students should start the college prep process depends on their maturity. Some start in middle school, but when students enter freshman year, it's definitely time to get going. It's important to pay attention to course selection -- it needs to be challenging but not overwhelming. I generally advise that students take college preparatory classes, including four years each of history, science, English and math. At least three years of foreign language are needed, but I encourage students to take a fourth year to show a college they're willing to go above and beyond. High school is also a time of self-discovery so I encourage students to explore their electives. In Fairfax County, we have something called academies. At an arts academy, students can explore photography, digital technology and see if they really enjoy it before considering it as a potential career choice.
SCORE! After course work and grade-point average, colleges scrutinize the SAT or ACT. As much as we hate to admit it, standardized tests are very important; they serve as an indicator of how well a student will do in college. I encourage students to get the prep books and take the practice tests as many times as they need to feel comfortable. For some, taking a preparatory course is better. Parents really need to talk to their child and decide what's the best option.
SHOW ME THE MONEY: All parents should fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form to see what they qualify for (www.fafsa.ed.gov). Also talk to colleges about financial-aid packages -- some private schools offer more support than you can get at a public school. And don't forget about scholarships. High school career centers have books filled with scholarships to apply for. Many students don't want to waste time writing an essay for a $500 scholarship, but if it takes about two hours to write it, that's $250 per hour -- better than any part-time job they'll ever have!
ROAD TRIP: You can't tell from a book or a Web site if you are going to like a school. You have to visit. I offer students and parents this helpful hint when making their travel plans: Go when school is in session. A college has a very different feel in October than in August. Go to the dorms, the student union and sit in on a class. Kids are really good at knowing if it is an environment where they'll fit in.
STAY ON COURSE: Most students apply to between four and six colleges. I never discourage students from applying to a dream school, but I always encourage them to have other realistic options. Some of the biggest mistakes students make during the application process are not staying organized, missing deadlines and not following application directions. It's helpful if parents take an active role in the process by reading over applications and marking their own calendars as to when the paperwork is due.
WRITE ON: You can write your way into a university with a good essay, so start early. Admissions officers don't know you, and this is how you become real to them. Never assume that they will garner something from your essay that isn't there. For this reason, I recommend having someone who doesn't know you give you feedback on your essay before it's sent off. Several people also should proofread it. One time, a student wrote about his lifelong ambition to become a pediatrician, but spell check corrected his misspelling of the word to "pedestrian."
As told to Karen Hart
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