One word seems to describe the college admissions process better than the rest: stress. Between taking the SATs, participating in extracurricular activities and acing exams in class, today’s high schoolers are stressed, often wondering if they are doing enough to get into the college of their dreams. However, if families tackle the process step by step, it doesn’t have to be stressful and could even be a positive experience to set the stage for the rest of their lives. How? Here are those steps.

FRESHMAN YEAR

College admissions is not something that staff at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson talks about with freshmen, says Theresa St. Laurent, director of school counseling. Instead, they talk about building the foundation for a successful high school career. “We talk to them about academics and learning how to study, study skills, time management and learning how to adapt to new environments,” she says. What does that mean?

First, try new things

Colleges are looking for students with diverse interests and talents. Freshman year is the perfect time to try out new clubs, hobbies and sports. Whether it be trying out for field hockey, volunteering within your school community or testing your brain power at Science Olympiad, showing involvement proves to universities that your student will take college seriously and will get the most out of their experience.

Communicate

“Starting communication is a big piece of the puzzle,” St. Laurent says. By talking with their children, parents can set the expectation for going to college. They also can encourage their freshman to tag along on college visits with their older siblings, she says, so they get an early idea of what college is like.

Make summer a time to shine

“What students do in the summer can be almost as important as the school year,” St. Laurent says. During the summer, students can continue the activities they have started, play sports, get summer jobs or volunteer. “This shows responsibility, initiative and that your student is willing to get out of his or her comfort zone.”

SOPHOMORE YEAR

“In sophomore year, one of the things we talk about is the importance of the transcript. The transcript tells a whole story, with the GPA as a conclusion to that story,” St. Laurent says.

Focus on your transcript

Colleges want to see growth and change throughout the story, agrees Andrew Cevasco, director at Loyola University Maryland’s Office of Undergraduate Admission. “A part of our holistic review of the high school or college transcript means that we’re looking for more than just a strong cumulative GPA.” Admissions directors look for students who do better each year, who take increasingly challenging classes and maintain a steady GPA and who take advantage of the AP, IB, Honors or GT courses that are available at their school.

PSAT and test prep

Taking a PSAT during the sophomore year of high school will prepare students for the real thing and will give them a good understanding of what kind of scores they are capable of. “There are free classes online as well as classes they can take to prepare for the exam,” St. Laurent says. “The College Board has partnered with Kahn Academy and now they can link the PSAT or any SAT with the online program to get a personalized study plan.”

JUNIOR YEAR

Now is the time for students to begin thinking intellectually about where they are going to college. They have to continue their involvements and deepen their commitments with sports teams or extracurricular activities.

Stay involved

“Things that help students stand out are not just a breadth of activities on their resume, but also a depth,” Cevsco says. That is why it is integral that students stay involved with many of the same activities throughout high school. This shows the commitment and dedication that colleges are looking for. Four years on a volleyball or mock trial team will prove that they know how to stick with something.

SAT & ACT

The SAT and ACT are perhaps the most dreaded components of the college admissions process. However, with proper preparation during sophomore year, they do not need to be as dismal as advertised. Taking the SAT or ACT during junior year gives students plenty of time to make sure their scores are competitive or allow them to decide to go the test-optional route.

College visits

There is no better way to figure out what kind of college your student wants to attend than visiting a wide range of schools. Taking trips into cities for metropolitan schools and into the country for more rural campuses will show both students and their families what is out there. Going to different schools will give families the confidence that the right school is out there and will help them know what it looks and feels like.

SENIOR YEAR

The summer going into senior year and the fall of senior year are crucial times for college admissions. “We recommend students fill out the Common App in the summer and also begin preparing the first few drafts of their admissions essays,” St. Laurent says. Filling out these applications early minimizes stress and gives students time to apply to their top choices with early action.

Common App

The Common App is a high school senior’s best friend. It is not too difficult to fill out and can be sent to the majority of universities. Make students fill it out early and accurately so they can start submitting applications once they know what they are looking for.

SATs

Taking the SAT two or three times is totally normal and is a good opportunity to continue raising scores. Super scoring, or adding together the best scores, is a great way to maximize scores and increase a student’s chance of getting in to the college of his or her dreams.

Test optional?

There are more than 800 test-optional colleges and universities across the country, so if a student is not the strongest test taker, look into universities that value other parts of the admissions process more. “Here at Loyola, we ask them to submit an additional teacher recommendation or an additional essay. Essentially, we’ve removed one academic reference, and we are asking them to provide another,” Cevasco says. In many cases, schools that offer test-optional admissions still offer students merit-based scholarships.

Early decision vs. early action?

Early decision is a binding contract. If you decide to apply to a school early decision, you must attend that school and put down a deposit. However, if you apply early action, you simply put yourself in an early applicant pool. This will show the school your initiative without the binding agreement of early decision. Only do early decision if your student is 100 percent sure that the school is right for them, St. Laurent advises.

Write your admissions essay

Choosing an essay topic is challenging but provides students with an opportunity to show off their values and separate them from the pack. There are some topics, like sports injuries, that counselors say they have read time and time again. Make sure the topic is different, exciting and personal to the student writing the essay.

Talk to guidance counselors

Yes, there are a lot of steps to remember, but luckily there are professionals in most school districts who are trained to help your student get into college. Getting in touch with guidance counselors can give students good insight into where they can get in and the colleges that are most popular at their high schools. Most importantly, they can reassure families that they are not alone in this process. JN

This article originally appeared in Baltimore’s Child, a Jewish News-affiliated publication.

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