Today's column is mostly for high school seniors, who are facing the rather scary question of what they are going to do next year, but younger students might want to pay attention as well.

Regular readers of Homeroom know that I believe all students should make sure they are ready to take on college-level work once they leave high school, but there are a number of ways to do that.

The first and most obvious, of course, is to go to college. But other possibilities include entering the military, which requires college-level learning for most specialties, or training for skilled construction work, automobile repair, firefighting and a whole slew of other jobs such as computer programming, biomedical laboratory work and graphic design. The fact is, jobs that don't require advanced learning generally pay too little to be able to raise a family in reasonable comfort -- or sometimes even to support one person.

Most Montgomery County students do go to college, however. Somewhere around 65 percent go immediately from high school into a four-year college and 20 percent to 25 percent to a two-year college, according to school surveys.

Like high school students everywhere, most in Montgomery County attend college within their own state.

The most interesting statistic, which is based on actual enrollment data, is that within two years of graduation, 40 percent of all Montgomery County high school graduates are enrolled in the two-year Montgomery College. Some enter Montgomery College right out of high school. Some enroll after taking time off from school. Some return to Montgomery College after a year or more at a four-year college.

To those students planning to go to Montgomery College next year, I want to pass along the advice of Kent Weaver, head of guidance for Montgomery County public high schools: Don't leave the application and registration process until the summer. "A lot of students graduate, go to the beach for a week, come back and get started in a job, and at some point in July go up to Montgomery College," only to find that the classes they want are filled, Weaver said. They end up taking whatever courses are left over.

Get all your paperwork done by graduation, Weaver advises. Then you can enjoy end-of-the-year activities without worrying about what you'll be doing in the fall.

If you are planning to attend a four-year college, you should have begun the process of applying. If you haven't, don't panic; just get going. The first stop is your school's career center, which should have a wealth of information about colleges and the application process, as well as regular visits from college recruiters. If you would like to meet with a lot of different college representatives armed with applications, consider going to the college fair Tuesday in Baltimore sponsored by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC).

Most colleges divide up their admissions officers geographically, so keep in mind that the people manning the tables at a college fair -- and the people who come to your high school -- are probably the very individuals who will read your application first. Be nice to them.

For more tips about how to get the most out of a college fair, go to www.nacac.com and click on "college fairs" at upper left. I wish I could tell students that they should go to the guidance page of their school's Web site for detailed information about applying to colleges, but I found that only a few of the high school Web sites are useful and up to date.

One of the better Web sites is Walter Johnson High School's (www.mcps.k12.md.us/schools/wjhs/studserve/guidance/index.html). In addition to a good general guide to college applications, it has a fascinating "College Guide" -- put together by a former Walter Johnson parent, Jim Lipton -- that you can't get anywhere else. It lists colleges to which 10 or more Montgomery County students have been accepted between 1999 and 2001, with links to those schools. Students who don't know where to start applying to colleges might find some interesting ideas there.

Now, on the application itself, I want to warn of a few pitfalls.

First, a general warning: High schools and colleges aren't prepared to deal with the large number of college applications being submitted. Only a few years ago, most college-bound students applied to three or four colleges. Today, students apply to eight, nine, even 10 colleges.

High schools have not increased guidance staffs to handle this volume. As for colleges, many are doing something known as "recruit to deny," meaning that they are encouraging lots more students to apply in order to rise in the rankings of U.S. News and World Report, which judges the quality of a school in part by how many students it turns down. (This disgusting practice is one reason not to take U.S. News and World Report's evaluation very seriously.)

In any case, the sheer mass of paperwork has become very difficult to manage, both at high schools and colleges. So students need to keep track of deadlines and the paper flow; they shouldn't count on their high schools and the colleges to which they're applying to do it for them.

A good beginning is to make a chart for each college you are applying to, with the various parts of the application (the form itself, essay, transcript, teacher recommendation and test scores, among other elements) and check off what the student has sent and received. Weaver recommends that students keep photocopies of everything so that if something gets lost, a copy is ready to send.

Weaver also recommends that students include a stamped, self-addressed postcard with each part of the application. For example, when students give teachers recommendation forms with stamped envelopes addressed to the colleges they are applying to, each envelope should be accompanied by a postcard with the name of the college and the words "teacher recommendation." When the college receives the teacher recommendation, it can drop the postcard in the mail, letting the student know the document has been received.

The same applies to requests to your school to send transcripts and test scores, or anything else the school is supposed to do.

Students might also want to request an unofficial copy of their transcript ahead of time from their school's registrar to make sure it is accurate. They should check that it lists all courses and internships correctly, with the right grades. Students who took and passed high school classes in middle school -- foreign language, algebra or geometry, for example -- and who are eligible to receive high school credit might have to request that those courses be listed on their transcripts. Don't assume that they will be included automatically.

Anyone thinking about attending a Maryland school should look at a new publication from the Maryland Higher Education Commission that has information about every four-year and two-year college in Maryland, as well as accredited technical and career programs. The high school career centers should have copies of this, the 2002-03 edition of "Student Guide to Higher Education and Financial Aid in Maryland." It is also online at www.mhec.state.md.us.

That Web site is also a useful source of information on state financial aid. Maryland's programs are far from adequate -- the state just received a D- for affordability of higher education on a national report card compiled by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education (www.highereducation.org) -- but financial aid does exist, and for some students it makes the difference between being able to go to college and not.

For comprehensive information on federal student aid, go to www.fafsa.ed.gov, a Web site of the U.S. Department of Education.

Financial aid will be the topic of a seminar at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School on Wednesday.

Good luck -- and send me your war stories and cautionary tales.

Note U-Md. Deadlines

Because so many students from Montgomery County apply to the University of Maryland, College Park, I want to give a heads-up. Even though Part I of the application was due Nov. 1, Jackie Geter-Hunter, assistant admissions director, said it's not too late to send it. Part I, which takes only about 15 minutes to fill out, serves mainly to open a file for the applicant.

Geter-Hunter strongly advises all students to submit the rest of the application (Part II) by Dec. 1, however, to allow for your application to get full consideration for merit-based scholarships and honors programs. If you wait until the regular Jan. 20 deadline, it might be too late for those.

Homeroom appears every week in Montgomery Extra. Send questions, opinions and issues that you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or e-mail homeroom@washpost.com. To see previous columns, go towww.washingtonpost.com, click on the Education page and look for Homeroom under Education Columnists.