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Finding the Right Fit
How your high school student can get the most out of their college search.

by Lauren Kubiak

On the first day of high school, mastering a three digit locker combination and memorizing the route to each class, while refraining from walking into the wrong one, can be overwhelming for a newcomer. By the end of the first month, it’s a no-brainer and comes time for a new challenge.  

High school is filled with challenges and is also the perfect setting to gain new freedoms, from driving for the first time to dancing at prom. Some nights can go on endlessly when pulling an all-nighter writing an essay that’s due the next morning. The four years shape an adolescent into a young adult, developing characteristics colleges look for in a student. 

It’s crucial for those wanting a college education  to be ahead of the process and in charge of their career. With the support of staff  at the school and family members, the college process becomes a lot less stressful for the student, making for an enjoyable next four years.  

Where to begin
Searching for the perfect college is not a walk in the park. It takes a lot of time, energy and studying to first find a suitable college that includes academics and activities of interest and then second, prepare for that college by taking required classes and exams. Before  diving headfirst into the process, there are student resources willing to help every student right inside the building, including college counselors.

Some high schools and counselors are preparing students well in advance, even going as far as talking  with middle school students. As soon as students step foot in Moorestown Friends School (MFS), strong academic and extracurricular offerings are available, says Keith Vassall, director of college counseling at MFS. 

 “We as a college counseling office would begin meeting with freshmen and their family during their freshman year,” he says. “We typically meet with them as a large group and this is where we would just provide general information on the college process just so that they have an idea of what to expect as they progress through high school and how they can position themselves for success in the college process later on.”

Teachers and staff at MFS aren’t trying to bombard students with information but want to plant the seed in their heads and make sure students take courses or activities that give them personal  growth. Once some time goes by, the search for a college concretely begins as a rising junior.  

At Merion Mercy Academy, students are preparing for college in the spring of their sophomore year. Preparing this early gives time for college counselors to talk with each student about their interests, academic scores and what courses they should be signing up for in the upcoming years. 

 “The best way to start the search process is [to do] a simple Google search [for] ‘colleges near me’ and go visit a few college campuses,” says Merion Mercy’s college counselor, Jean Marie O’Brien. “Get a [feel] of … what [the student] liked and disliked during the tour, and then bring that information back to whether it’s their school counselor or their college counselor.”

Schools like Merion Mercy and Paul VI High School use Naviance, which is an online college  and career planning tool also used to research historical data from the high school about former students who have applied and were accepted to colleges.  

Additionally, Paul VI is “introducing a digital portfolio program to our students this fall to help them track their academic projects, extracurricular activities and volunteer work,” says Carol Basara, the assistant principal for student services at Paul VI.

What comes next  
Students typically start visiting colleges as rising seniors but can start as early as rising juniors. To get the most out of a college visit, students should not only tour the campus but try to shadow a student and sit in on a college lesson to get a feel for the learning atmosphere.

Justin Roy, vice president for enrollment at Georgian Court University, says students should visit a college campus at least twice because visiting on a Monday will be different than visiting on a Tuesday. 

Additionally, there’s a huge adjustment from sitting in school for seven hours, five days straight to having only five classes a semester,  on average, with lots of free time. Roy suggests internalizing independence and self motivation  during high school can help with the adjustment period.

 “You are going to be making your own schedule. The alarm clock rings, you hit snooze a bunch of times and then whoever is the responsible adult—that could be mom, dad, grandmom, grandpa, anybody—isn’t going to come wake you up and get you out of bed,” Roy says.

Having a connection to home through texts, calls and social media can help but also hinder those seeking the full college experience.  O’Brien says, “What I’m finding [is] freshmen are struggling to find their place on campus rather than pushing themselves outside their comfort zone. They’re calling home, they’re texting home.”  

Incoming high school seniors should be joining clubs and stepping  out of their comfort zone to gain their own independence to prepare them for the changes that are about to come.  

Making the commute  
There are several important factors that come into play when going to college, from location and finances, to academic majors and graduation rates. Megan Ruttler, executive  director of the Center for College and Career Readiness at Rowan College at Gloucester County (RCGC), advises against going to a college based solely on a degree major.  

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center  for Shared Statistics, 30 percent of undergraduate students changed their major within the first three years of being enrolled. Attending a school that has not only a potential major but extracurricular activities the student enjoys is essential.

Being a part of the recruitment team for eight years, Ruttler notices a stigma attached to county colleges. There’s an association between  cheaper tuition rates with lower academic value at county colleges. Some also think the courses aren’t as demanding and there’s a concern that credits won’t transfer.  

 “Our courses are equally as rigorous and are taught by fulltime faculty who possess an advanced  degree in their content area or adjuncts who also teach at neighboring institutions such as four-year universities,” says Ruttler.

The Lampitt Law, a transfer agreement policy in New Jersey, was signed to give students with associate degrees the opportunity for a seamless transfer—with all course credits—to a four-year institution if accepted. 

 “Having Rowan University, a research institution with two medical  schools, engage in a partnership agreement with Gloucester and Burlington County Colleges addresses  these stigmas head on,” she says.  

RCGC offers the High School Option Program so students as young as 15 years old have the chance to begin taking college courses at a reduced tuition rate.  

 “Students take advantage of this program for a variety of reasons  to include exploring career/major options, satisfying high school graduation requirements  via New Jersey’s Option Two experience, satisfying general education electives and other college  degree requirements and completing any required remediation,” Ruttler adds.

When the time is right  
Some students knew exactly what they wanted to be when they grew up. Others have a harder time deciding on a profession. For those in high school still questioning  what they’re passionate about, there’s still plenty of time. 

It’s never too late. I think that students are always evolving and their preference for what they might want in a college might also be evolving,” Vassall says.  

O’Brien agrees with Vassall that it’s never too late and really is up to the family and their grasp on the whole college process. “When it’s a first student going through the process, I find that taking the pressure off the search helps and it’s the most beneficial,” she says. “So the earlier you start it, the less they feel pressured to look at certain colleges.”

What’s becoming more popular is the gap year where students will either defer their acceptance for  another year or two or they hold off on applying altogether. Years ago this was unheard of but now it’s becoming more accepted by both families and colleges as it gives the student more time to home in on what they want to study in college.  

O’Brien says that students who take gap years typically travel and do service work and she encourages families to look at all options when it comes to making a definite decision. 

If a student is looking to strengthen some of their weaknesses or find themselves, it’s a great opportunity to, Vassall says. “I  think a gap year can be very rewarding, but I also think that with anything, even with a gap year, you do have to have some planning or there’s some planning that’s needed to make it as beneficial as possible,” he adds. 

Without planning, it’s easy to lose track and harder to maximize lost time out of school. 

For parents helping their kids in the process, it’s all about empowering them during this time. It can be a hard topic to discuss for some families, so sitting down once a week to talk about the future is a great start to planning. It  might be hard to watch your child grow up and move on to this next step in their life, but being supportive and giving them the extra push is what they’ll need the most.

Published (and copyrighted) in Suburban Family Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 6 (August 2018).
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