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Getting into College: Best tips from guidance counselors


Students and families just starting the college application process will find that it’s not as easy as selecting the right school and applying. Students these days are applying to more schools, and often applying early, ramping up the competition and the stress level at home. It’s enough to give even the most level-headed parent heart palpitations.

What’s the best way to navigate the highstakes college process without losing it?

We asked area school guidance counselors and consultants to share their best tips for getting through the college application process.

They offered a wide range of advice for families and students on everything from finding that special “X Factor” that gives a student a competitive edge to keeping the stress level down at home.

Develop a good relationship with your school guidance counselor.

Guidance counselors have been through the college application process hundreds of times and can help find a customized solution for each family – all free of charge. Parents sometimes don’t realize that they can meet with a school counselor more than once and should feel free to use school services as a resource.

“Sometimes I think students and families underutilize their school counseling. There is no limit on how much they can come in and use it,” said Donna Shea, director of school counseling at South Windsor High School.

Limit college talk at home.

Don’t let the application process consume your family. The student and parents should agree to a set aside time once a week to discuss how the process is going.

“When teenagers sense that all parents want to do is to talk about the college process, they shut them out, and then no communication takes place,” said Webster T. Trenchard, director of college guidance at the Loomis Chaffee School.

Build a strong transcript.

Students should take the most challenging courses they can handle and should aim to get the best grades in them, seeking help from teachers when they need it. Students should realize that they are building a permanent record from the moment they enter high school as freshmen.

Distinguish yourself beyond the classroom.

Colleges are looking for students with a particular talent or X Factor, such as debating, music or athletics, that a student will bring to college and will add to the vibrancy of the campus.

“To be honest, colleges are looking for students who have an interest in learning,” said Richard Magner, guidance director at Xavier High School in Middletown. “Good grades are important, yes, but sometimes it’s that interest outside the classroom that separates them from other kids.”

If a student is interested in politics, for example, she should get involved in a campaign, Magner said. If a student likes law, he should join a model court team.

Don’t pad your college resume with a lot of clubs.

“Don’t join clubs because you think it will impress the admissions counselor. Join them because you want to be involved in them,” said West Hartford education consultant Michele Gorman. “Concentrate on doing them well and being genuinely active in one or two instead of 10 different ones.”

Be true to yourself.

When choosing a college, look beyond the name, reputation and flash to find out what it’s really like and whether it’s a good fit for the student.

“There’s a lot of soccer sideline talk and people pick up tips from other people. But they really need to get onto the campuses themselves with the child and listen to what the child thinks about each campus,” said Shea, the South Windsor counselor. “If the student lands in the place that they’re most comfortable, they’re going to have the best experience.”

Gorman advises students to think about whether they want to be in the top, middle or bottom of their college class once they get there. A child struggling through college at the bottom of the class is likely to lose confidence, while those at the top will get a boost in confidence that will last well after college, she said. “You can just see it in their body language,” Gorman added.

Be careful about interpreting a college’s SAT and GPA averages.

GPAs, or grade point averages, are not very meaningful because they vary so much from school to school, Trenchard said. It’s also good to remember that the average SAT score listed for a college is usually a combination of students with very high test scores and students with lower scores who are bringing something else to the table.

“If you have testing that falls in the middle – around the average but without that additional X Factor or something else to bring to the table – it might actually be quite difficult to get in,” Trenchard said. “Too often, I have seen families assume that since the student’s SAT scores were within the average that was going to be a plus in the admissions process, but that is not necessarily the case.”

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