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Getting ready for the college application marathon - tips from a guidance director

Posted by Leslie Anderson  August 30, 2013 03:52 PM

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Diane Ryan is the guidance director at Bedford High School. As students return to school this fall, Ryan said college-bound seniors are preparing to apply to an average of seven to eight schools. For a checklist to help plan 11th and 12th grade, go here.

GLOBE: As students begin their senior year, where should they be in the search process?

RYAN: Students and parents are all over the place when the senior year starts. On the extremely organized end, families have identified where the student will apply and are eager to get the details of information they need from us to complete the common application in September. The other is kids who havenít done much of anything and really need a lot more one-on-one help to get through the process.

On Sept. 12, Iím giving students and parents a big overview. Here is what you need to know over the next few months. We try to lay out all the pieces of the process and what parts belong to whom.

One of the phenomena that has really introduced a big change to the timing of applications over the last decade is the huge growth in the early action applications, which are due Nov. 1 or Nov. 15. We have half or two-thirds of the current senior class putting in at least one early action application, which means that in order to accommodate having all the materials ready by Nov. 1 or Nov. 15, a tremendous amount of work needs to happen in the first week of school.

GLOBE: Should students apply for early action?

RYAN: Applying for early action is one of the pieces of advice I will emphasize more this year since it has taken such a hold and changed the rhythm of college admissions. Students need to take advantage and at least apply to safety schools. The advantage is if you get into one, you can breathe a big sigh of relief and then itís a decision of what to do beyond that. Itís a great place to start.

If they want to do that, they have to create the package and have it done by Nov. 1 or Nov. 15, so itís a very intense time period. In mid-November, we take a deep breath. Then the question is: Who needs to apply to more and who didnít manage to do anything yet and needs a lot of help with planning? There is still plenty of time to work with students and we do our very best.

GLOBE: What is the most stressful part of the application process for students?

RYAN: Iíve seen even the most capable students worry they arenít going to get in anywhere. Helping kids make a realistic list and using online search tools will help. A lot of the application process is cut and dried. The essay for many kids is very challenging. Itís your best chance to both tell colleges more about who you are and demonstrate that you are a good writer. Counselors will spend a fair amount of time talking to students about topics or looking at what theyíve written. For some kids, it feels like an overwhelming task.

GLOBE: What should students take into consideration when choosing where to apply?

RYAN: Where is it, whatís the cost, whatís the size, have you visited it, do you like it? If you do that work up front, within those eight schools you can come up with a few safeties, three possibles, and a couple of reaches. Save the money and time and do the work on the front end, because it takes time and money to apply.

GLOBE: How do finances fit into the process?

RYAN: Everybodyís family situation is different so itís important for families to have a talk up front about what their situation is. How much is a family going to be able to pay and how comfortable are they with borrowing? Part of the affordability conversation is applying for financial aid and another piece is private versus public. Thatís a very important conversation.

We try to have a mix and have kids apply to something in the state system that appeals to them. They may get into some private colleges they like but end up with little financial aid. Another piece of the financial conversation can be two-year versus four-year. The community college system offers a great way to end up in the state university system. There are students, because of finances, who choose to go the two-year route. Students can live at home and have a part-time job. To me, it makes the possibility of college really accessible.

GLOBE: What are a few key tips you would offer students?

RYAN: Stay calm, read directions and fill in the applications thoroughly. I think in our culture, which is so prone to quick answers through technology, they arenít reading as thoroughly as they used to. They have to slow themselves down and see what is really asked of them.

People need to understand that prepping for the [SATs and ACTs] can help. Not everyone can afford an expensive test prep but there are things you can do. After grades, itís the most important thing. Test scores are a factor and itís something you can do something about.

My advice to all students now that early action applications are such a large portion of what colleges receive, is that even if you arenít ready to apply to lots of colleges yet, identify with the counselors one or two safety schools they feel would be a good match and apply early action.

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at

Read more on the College Bound blog here.

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