Navigating the Precarious World of College Applications
Area high school students are fully immersed in the school year now that summer is officially over. Tests, papers, grades, sports, after school commitments, extracurriculars…the list goes on and on. Pile the stress of the college admission process on top of all that and it’s no wonder students are already counting the days until Winter Break. Nonetheless, juniors and seniors are facing the realities of college visits, test scores, personal essays, letters of recommendations, and of course, applications. ShoreBread sat down with Worcester Preparatory School’s Director of College Counseling Tony D’Antonio this week to discuss the college application process, scholarships, and the realities of a college education in today’s volatile economy.
It’s debatable as to when students and parents should start thinking about college. Some parents go into college mode on the first day of kindergarten, while others wait until the first day of senior year to begin to Google colleges and map out visits. The reality is, while parents and students don’t need to go into panic mode before high school, having a plan in place by junior year is important. “I see the junior year as the year you really lay the foundation for doing the application work,” said D’Antonio. Beyond having a plan for SAT/ACT prep and having test dates and subject test dates lined up, the junior year is the time for students to start thinking seriously about what they want in a college experience. “It’s the time for them to start recognizing the things we take for granted day to day,” said D’Antonio adding “they need to expose themselves to real life types of experiences.” Distance, climate, population size, and short term versus long term goals are just a few of the elements of the day to day life that students should start envisioning in their future college experience. Visiting gives them this chance, explained D’Antonio, stressing the importance of college visits, talking to professors and students, and asking the pertinent questions.
In addition to envisioning where students want to be, it’s also important for students to start thinking about how they plan on getting there. Junior year is the time to shine, according to D’Antonio, noting that college admissions offices look at junior year academics very closely – even if a student hasn’t excelled freshmen or sophomore year, junior year is the time to step your game up. Testing should also be completed (for the most part) by the end of junior year. While the SAT or ACT can still be taken senior year, the majority of the test scores should be secured in the junior year. D’Antonio also stressed the importance of planning ahead with test prep – waiting until two weeks before the test is not going to be particularly beneficial.
Test, grades, test, grades…this may seem like the dominating factor in the admissions process but extracurricular activities and letters of recommendation bear significant weight. “making a difference and making a positive impact in their community – their junior year is big for this,” said D’Antonio, adding that while taking leadership roles and joining clubs is a start, what really stands out on an application is a student who goes a step further and makes a difference in a club or leaves an impact in a leadership role. Equally important is making an impact so that teachers remember students when it comes time to write a letter of recommendation. D’Antonio noted that getting an ‘A’ in a teacher’s class doesn’t necessarily yield a stand-out letter of recommendation, rather, making a positive impact on the classroom does.
By the beginning of senior year, D’Antonio likes to see his students with a short list of schools, roughly 4 to 7 schools that the students plans on applying to. When narrowing down your list, D’Antonio suggests including a ‘reach’ school, a ‘possible,’ and a ‘likely.’ For every reach school, there should also be a likely, to ensure a wider base of acceptance letters. “As a senior, they are past the planning stage,” he said. “They’re in the doing stage. Demonstrating interest is huge senior year.” Just as students want to be wanted by colleges, colleges want to be wanted by students, so showing an appropriate amount of interest in a school by developing a dialogue and a relationship with a school is paramount in the senior year.
By senior year, students should also be following up on letters of recommendations, making sure faculty members are aware of deadlines – politely of course – and ensuring that they’ve chosen a teacher that knows their character. “That is definitely powerful, when a faculty member writes about a student and how they made an impact in their classroom. That’s powerful,” said D’Antonio.
After months of testing, prepping, researching and visiting, comes the actual applying. This is when the benefit of having a plan early on pays off. “It’s really on the student, they have to own the process,” said D’Antonio. As if the application process weren’t daunting enough, there are also scholarships to consider. Just like the application process, scholarship research takes time, planning and ownership on the students’ part. Websites such as fastweb.com, collegeprowler.com, and finaid.org are just a few of the websites available to help find scholarship information. FASFA and CSS are also available for financial aid. While FASFA is based primarily on income, CSS affords you the opportunity to explain financial hardships or issues, i.e. if your family is currently putting three other siblings through college.
It’s no secret that today’s college graduates are carrying a heavy burden – student loans. With an unpredictable job market and rising tuition costs, many people question whether college is even a viable option anymore. “I think the economy has definitely impacted how families view state schools versus the appeal of name brand colleges,” said D’Antonio, noting that families on the Eastern Shore have been blessed with an excellent selection of state schools, both in Maryland and in Delaware. “There is definitely a different approach now; however, for the good students, they should not disregard the sticker price schools,” he said, adding that at the end of the day, schools are still competing for strong students. The best option is to apply, see what is offered in terms of scholarship and financial aid, and then make the decision.
“The reality is, if they are prepared and want to go to college, than they should pursue it,” said D’Antonio, adding that despite current economic trends, a solid foundation in higher education is still viable, available, and essential. D’Antonio went on to note that there are other options as well for students not financially or emotionally ready to dive into a four-year school. Gap years provide students with the chance to either travel, volunteer for a year, or work to save money for college – all opportunities that will only benefit students in the long run. Community colleges are also an excellent resource, said D’Antonio.
No matter the path students chose to take, be it community college, Ivy Leagues, or attending a state school, the key is being prepared for the entire process that lies ahead. While hearing the words, ‘you’ve got to own it and work for it’ may be the last thing an already stressed-out teen might want to hear, it will all be worth it in the end when those thick acceptance envelopes arrive in the mail.