A new school year is upon us - and for many that means the search for the right college is about to begin.
Many college officials and students say it is important to start planning for college during the freshman year of high school, and even earlier in the case of college savings.
Bethany Herring, a senior corporate communications major who is pursuing a minor in business administration at Lycoming College, recommended students start thinking about college during their freshman year of high school.
"Get involved in extracurricular activities because you are more likely to get into a leadership position by senior year," Herring said. "Work hard in your classes and get extra help in harder subjects. Start to think about what classes you want to or need to take up through senior year."
Herring said many schools still require the SATs, but if students aren't satisfied with their SAT scores, they can take the ACT exam.
"I found the questions on there to relate more to what I learned in my high school class than the SAT questions," Herring said. "I regret not taking AP (advanced placement) classes in high school. I would recommend students to take at least one during their high school careers to get them adjusted to college-level work. If a student qualifies to take a college freshman-level class through a local college, I would recommend that for the same reason."
Herring said most colleges look at extracurricular, volunteer and other civic activities in regard to selecting students for admission.
"They want students to be involved on their campus and in the surrounding community," she said. "I would recommend that a student follows their passion(s), whatever that may be, but also be willing to try new things. And definitely take some time for community service."
"Most colleges in the northeast require SATs. Each college will define its SAT minimum scores that will allow the student to enter either into that college or into a specific major at the college. Penn College requires SAT scores for anyone entering a bachelor-degree program," said Dennis Correll, associate dean for admissions and financial aid at Pennsylvania College of Technology.
Jason Moran, assistant director of admissions, Lycoming College, also recommended that prospective students submit their scores on the SAT1 or ACT college entrance exams.
"At Lycoming, admitted students typically score within the range of 1250 to 1800 on the SAT1 exam and average a score of a 21 on the ACT exam," Moran said.
"Most colleges will tell you that math, science and English are their top subjects in which to excel," Dennis Correll said. "However, if you are going into a health-related field, high school chemistry, and anatomy and physiology are looked at favorably. In any engineering- or math-intensive major, of course, all the math classes you can take at the high school level will certainly help you in college."
Dennis Correll said not all colleges treat extracurricular, volunteer and other civic activities the same way in regard to selecting students for admission.
"It will depend on the size of the college or the size of the academic department to which the student is applying. Some colleges' admissions offices make the selection, and other colleges use a committee of faculty and advisers to make the selection," Dennis Correll said. "If the application asks for the information, it will be used to rank applicants. Most colleges are looking for a student who can juggle extracurricular activities and academics and do both successfully. Colleges are looking for leaders, and if you can demonstrate that with your volunteer experiences, it is certainly a feather in your cap."
"Colleges will definitely review extracurricular, volunteer and other civic activities when reviewing applications for admission because Admission Officers are striving to meet two goals: 1. Making sure that the students selected for admission will be able to successfully benefit from all that a college has to offer both academically and socially; 2. Finding students who will be able to make great contributions to student life (i.e. in performing arts, on the athletic field, or through community stewardship)," Moran said.
Dennis Correll said colleges are bulging at the seams because unskilled employment is not as readily available to graduating high school students.
"In years past, high school grads had three options: college, military or employment," Dennis Correll said. "Employment, as we all know, is not a viable option for today's high school grads. Employers are looking for someone with an education who can not only do the job, but grow with the business and help make the business grow."
Moran said a national trend has taken place where applicants have been applying to more colleges than in previous years, which has resulted in the college acceptance process becoming more selective for colleges and universities striving to maintain enrollments.
"At Lycoming, the Office of Admission aims to enroll 375 freshman and 25 transfer students each year, despite any fluctuations, with application trends," Moran said. "Being a smaller, private liberal arts college, the admission staff reviews each applicant who applies for admission. The individual attention given allows the staff to recognize the students who meet and exceed the academic criteria for admission along with recognizing personal achievements and interests."
Verna Correll, a guidance counselor in the South Williamsport Area School District, recommended students take the Pre-SAT (PSAT) test in their sophomore year.
"The SAT reasoning tests continue to be the most common college admissions tests juniors and seniors take, especially here on the East Coast," Verna Correll said. "Some of the more elite schools require SAT subject tests so students can demonstrate their strengths in particular areas such as English, math, languages and sciences."
Carole Heckel, a guidance counselor at Williamsport Area High School, said the PSAT is given only once per year, in October, and is strongly recommended for sophomores and juniors as the best practice tool to prepare for the SAT. She said that students should aim to score a minimum of 500 in each area of the SAT.
"Desirable score ranges vary depending on the selectivity of admission of various colleges and universities. State universities such as Lock Haven or Mansfield will want to see a minimum of 1000 to 1100 on the Reading and Math combined for admission," Heckel said. "Penn State or Pitt will want to see 1200 or higher for their University Park and Pittsburgh campuses. Ivy League schools such as the University of Pennsylvania or Cornell will want to see 1400 or higher."
Both Verna Correll and Heckel recommended that students take the highest level that they can handle of each core subject - math, English, science, social studies and languages. Heckel also said students need to be in the correct math courses in grades seven and eight so that they are sequentially set up for college preparatory math in grade nine.
Verna Correll said some colleges use extracurricular, volunteer and other civic activities as an indicator of character and time management.
"I recommend that students get actively involved in a few select activities and take on leadership positions. College admissions counselors are not impressed by a laundry list of clubs and activities," Verna Correll said. "When possible, students should participate in activities that are relevant to their major, for example volunteering at Williamsport Hospital if they wish to go into medicine or Habitat for Humanity if they wish to major in construction or engineering."
The counselors both said the college acceptance process is getting more and more difficult each year.
"The state universities are getting thousands more applications than they can accept, so they can choose the higher academic students now and the so-called 'safe' schools are no longer safe," Verna Correll said. "Therefore, students need to focus on achieving the highest grade-point average and rank they can, while taking the highest level of coursework they can handle. In addition, they need to earn high SAT-ACT scores, write impressive admissions essays, and demonstrate school and community involvement."
"Many students actually believe the myth that 'only the junior year counts.' This is just not so," Heckel said.
Laurie Crockett Barclay, owner of College Planning Associates, 1421 E. Third St., said applications to colleges around the country soared again this year because of the number of high school graduates and to the number of colleges to which they applied.
"Economic instability has led to more 'shopping around' for the best financial aid and scholarship packages," she said.
When it comes to preparing for college, Verna Correll advised students and parents to get an early start.
"Freshman year is when reality starts to sink in for students and their parents - the beginning of earning credits, grade-point averages and class rank," she said. "When students take the PSATs in the sophomore year, this kick-starts student intensity and college communication. If they provide contact information, students will get bombarded with mail and e-mail from colleges, which can allow lots of family discussion."
Paying for college
Verna Correll said college is increasingly expensive and any amount parents can save will help.
"Parents have 18 years to set aside at least a little bit of money each week for their child's future in a savings account, TAP (Tuition Account Program) fund or coffee can," she said. "Students need to earn the highest grades possible and present themselves positively so they are in a good position for scholarships. Also students need to work hard on scholarships; they are very time-consuming but worthwhile."
Dennis Correll said the FAFSA - Free Application for Federal Student Aid - is due the spring of their high school senior year and that some colleges require early February deadlines, so it is important that parents complete their federal income taxes as early as they can.
"College Savings Plans are great prepaid methods of saving for college. Pennsylvania's TAP 529 Guaranteed Savings Plan (GSP) account is so easy to start and to add to throughout the years prior to the start of college," he said. "Federal and state financial aid is not guaranteed, and it is always nice to have this fund to lean on when financial aid doesn't cover all the costs of education."
"TAP allows you to purchase college credits at today's price ... you can be paying for college all while the kids are growing up, greatly easing the financial burden when the child reaches college age," Heckel said. "Students receiving full scholarships are rare. And while some borrowing through student loans is usually necessary, you want to borrow as little as possible."
If a student contributes to their own college savings plan, they are most likely holding down a job and learning a good life lesson in managing their own personal finances, Moran said. He also suggested that parents check with any scholarship opportunities through their own places of employment.
Verna Correll suggested students work with their high school guidance counselors and visit the financial aid office at each prospective college for information. Heckel said students also should apply for any scholarships specific to their high school, along with local and state scholarships.
"Student athletes who hope or plan to play for a Division I or II college must make sure that they complete the necessary NCAA documentation online and satisfy the NCAA course requirements," Verna Correll said.
Heckel said local Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency (PHEAA) Regional Director Don Shade, based in Williamsport, is a free resource available to parents and students.
Robert Crockett, owner of Crockett Financial Services, 1421 E. Third St., also advised parents to begin saving for college as soon as possible.
"Begin saving money when the child is born, probably through a 529 savings and-or tuition plan recommended by a financial adviser," Robert Crockett said. "Estimate the expected family contribution - federal and institutional formulas - several years ahead of college to provide insight on the net cost to finance the education.
"Do not avoid consideration of any college based on the stated cost of attendance, as financial aid may reduce the cost considerably," Robert Crockett said. He also advised parents to complete financial aid applications early and accurately to maximize aid consideration and to not wait until the tax return is completed.
"Consider negotiating among schools to obtain more aid after all financial aid awards have been received," Robert Crockett recommended.
Herring said her parents have a TAP 529 plan in place for her college education. The Lycoming student also offered the following advice: "Don't be ashamed of going to a community college or commuting to a local college, even if it is only for the first year or two. It might not be 'cool' right now, but in four years, the joke will be on the people who had to go away to school all four years and are now paying for it. Lycoming and Penn colleges are good schools. Take advantage of them and the opportunity to save money while living at home. I had the opportunity to go to the community college near me my first two years and I didn't because it wasn't 'cool'. The closer I get to graduation and having to pay off my education, the more I regret not doing that."
When to start
Crockett Barlcay, of College Planning Associates, said the company begins working with students at age 14, when exploration of college major and career interests through testing becomes predictive of the future and relevant to the student.
"At this age, most children are ready to absorb information about themselves (interests, abilities and personality styles) that will lead them to make better decisions about the course of their lives," she said.
Crockett Barclay said a student's academic performance in a rigorous curriculum that provides challenge is one of the most important factors college admissions officials seek in applicants. She also recommended that students take classes in English, math, history, science and foreign language, along with other advanced placement and honors courses.
Visiting the college
Dennis Correll said the college visit is the most important part of the college search process.
"You can do all your homework on the Internet or from books in the guidance counselor's office, but a student will only truly know if it is the right place to spend their academic career by visiting the campus," he said. "The campus tour, open house visit, etc., should always include meeting faculty and students."
"The best preparation a freshman or sophomore can do for college would be to focus on performing well in high school. If they have an older sibling who is college bound, then tag along on their college visits," Moran said. "Once junior year starts to roll around, invest some time in checking out colleges or universities online and take some road trips with family members to physically see what the college or university looks like by taking a student-guided tour. I would recommend visiting four to seven schools, which vary in enrollment size. Also mix in a few that are private and a few that are public. Don't be deterred by the cost of a private education."
Herring agreed, calling the college visit a "crucial" part of the search.
"At the end of the day, I think it is the students and teachers that ultimately make or break the school. It is important to see where you will be studying, living and hanging out for four years - and what type of people you will be doing those with - before you sign the tuition check."
The high school counselors also recommend visiting colleges.
"Short of getting married and having children, there is probably no greater time of change in a person's life than leaving home for college. Not only does your living environment change but so do all of the faces around you," Heckel said. "And while independence can be very appealing, you need to be able to manage that independence in a completely new environment with completely new people, with the goal of achieving high grades in courses that can be incredibly more difficult than anything experienced in high school."
Heckel said that where a student chooses to go to school is probably more important than knowing exactly what he or she wants to major in: "The individual needs to be happy and comfortable in the new environment if he or she is going to be successful academically."
The Lycoming admissions officer agreed and said some students even make repeat trips to colleges and universities that positively left an impression.
"Set up appointments to attend a class, meet with a professor and-or athletic coach, request to have lunch in the campus dining hall with the students, and even stay overnight on campus if the college or university offers the opportunity," Moran said.
Moran also advised parents and students to keep a notebook with questions to be asked during college visits, such as: Do students stay on campus during the weekend? What is the placement rate after graduation? When do I need to declare my major? What is the four-year graduation rate?
"The more colleges and universities visited, the more questions that will arise. In turn, the more questions that are asked from prospective students and families, the more information gained," Moran said. "Having the right information is crucial when making a decision on what college or university to attend and asking questions will allow a student to compare and contrast."
Crockett Barlcay said it is important for families to consider using an independent educational consultant to work with families during the college planning process.
"Independent educational consultants work evenings, weekends and year round and are able to provide in-depth, personal guidance in areas including college major and career planning, college selection, application for admission and college financial aid and scholarship possibilities," Crockett Barclay said. "This also differs greatly from the impersonal nature - and information overload - of online services. In addition, private consultants visit college campuses and continually keep up-to-date on admission trends."
Dennis Correll encouraged students to start a "mini-resume" that lists all of their high school clubs and organizations, along with community service. He said it also will come in handy when completing scholarship applications.
He also warns students about posting too much on their social networking sites. He said that some colleges have committees that go out and search for Facebook and other social network pages to see how students are showing the world who they are.
"Colleges are looking for students who portray an image that the college believes match the ideals of that school," Dennis Correll said. "Students need to remember that these social networking sites are not always private and confidential ... Anything controversial is better left off public Internet pages."
Crockett Barclay said colleges seek students who will make a meaningful contribution to campus life.
"Evidence is provided by an applicant's resume, which should demonstrate passion and leadership in extracurricular activities and community service. Examples include the arts, student government, student publications, athletics, paid employment and volunteer work," she said. "Rather than trying to be who they think a college wants them to be, high school students should participate in activities that help them learn more about themselves and their world. What's most important is that they are involved in activities that provide a sense of joy and accomplishment."
Dennis Correll also encourages students to participate in job shadowing while they are in high school.
"This helps them truly know what the profession is all about and in what kind of conditions they will be working," Dennis Correll said. "This saves them a lot of money in the long run and makes their chosen career much more enjoyable."
It also is important for students to be proactive and be the ones asking questions, the experts advised.
"Don't rely on your parents to do all the research and homework. Remember they won't be coming to college with you," Dennis Correll said. "College is not high school, in so many ways. Embrace the change, get to know new people from all walks of life and start to learn to be self-sufficient."
Most of all, Verna Correll said, students need to prioritize.
"Overextending themselves at part-time jobs or playing video games will not get them into college," she said.
Verna Correll said the school counselors often prepare a monthly newsletter, organize financial aid nights and FAFSA completion nights, develop an informative website, and meet with students and parents. She also recommended students and parents visit websites such as www.educationplanner.org.
Heckel said the Lycoming County Counselors' Association, in conjunction with Lycoming College, sponsors College Night each fall at Lycoming's Recreation Center. This year's will begin at 6:30 p.m. Sept. 23.
"Students and parents must not hesitate to utilize their school counselors. One of the primary jobs of the high school counselor is to set the students up for the next step," Heckel said. "Just like the mother bird, we take care of the young ones while they are still in the nest, but the real goal is to get to the day where we can push you out of the nest and you fly."