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College applications
T.J. Hooker - Pauline Searles, 17, a senior at Glens Falls High School, participates in an advanced placement physics lab at Adirondack Community College in Queensbury on Friday, September 17, 2010. The class is part of the New Visions Engineering program through WSWHE BOCES and is just one of numerous additional activities that will bolster Searles' college applications.

Like high school seniors across the country, Pauline Searles is in the midst of mapping out her path to college.

In one way, the Glens Falls student has an advantage of already knowing what she'd like to major in at college. But like so many others, she has been spending a lot of time doing online research of schools, working on her all-important application essay, staying current on available scholarship opportunities and keeping up her studies. In her case, this includes AP courses in both physics and math through the BOCES New Visions engineering program.

The three-season varsity athlete, ranked fourth in her class, hasn't yet made any visits to her top picks: West Point, Union College, Tufts University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Trinity College or Johns Hopkins University, but she's hoping to visit the closer schools on the weekends this fall when she has a little down time.

She also has an interest in playing Division III field hockey, so she has been contacting coaches to get her name out there.

Then there are those standardized tests. Although Searles scored a composite of 31 on her ACT of a possible score of 36, she is thinking about repeating it to nudge her score higher and planning for the SAT subject tests in math and physics.

Calling this time stressful might be an understatement.

"Each decision you make, it's not just, ‘Oh, let me just take this test.' This test is going to decide my placement in college and, thus, the rest of my future," Searles said.

Added to that is the ever-increasing competition to get into the college of one's choice, especially if it is an Ivy League school.

John Woodell-Freire, a counselor at Glens Falls High School, said he has was given a "horrible wakeup call" when a student approached him with a list of possible schools that included Dartmouth.

"Seven years ago when my oldest wanted to go there, it was an 18 percent admission rate. I started laughing hysterically when I saw that it was down to 15, 13 percent admission now. I was thinking it was impossible before, now it's impossible plus," Woodell-Freire said.

For parents and students new to college planning, the process begins as early as ninth grade with course selection.

"We try to determine their career plans, as far as interests, what kind of appropriate college that might lead them to and therefore what courses they should take here," counselor Arlene Dudley said.

Glens Falls, in particular, has an online career interest inventory program with links to jobs in those areas and the colleges that provide those majors. This inventory is done during all four years of high school because interests change.

Students also are encouraged to take classes that will leave open as many options as possible if they change their mind.

"For business students, we have some business electives and for our art students we always try each year to have them progress through the art department. For students who are unsure specifically, the general academics including the foreign language are always headed in the right direction," Dudley said.

New York state's regents action plan takes up most of a student's day to satisfy coursework in the major learning areas. But as he or she moves into the higher grades, there is a bit more "breathing room" for electives. Still, Woodell-Freire said, many students will continue with four years of English, math, science, social studies and a foreign language to look attractive to colleges.

As sophomores, students are encouraged to take pre-ACT and PSAT tests, to get a feel for what these college admission exams demand.

"Those tests give them a sense of where they fall academically for college admission standards," Dudley said. "It will also give a sense of how the scores match up to what a college would be looking for so students can compare, ‘Am I hitting the benchmark or do I need to look at certain subject areas and earmark content that was more difficult and focus on those areas to strengthen those skills?"

Once a student becomes a junior, the college search process takes on more significance. The PSAT, while only a preliminary exam for the SAT, will be used as a qualifying test for national merit scholarship consideration. ACTs also are offered.

Glens Falls High School counselor Brian Bombard explained that SAT results are supposed to be a predictor of how well a student will succeed in the first year in college, while the ACT - which has a science component - is a performance-based exam that looks at what students are supposed to have learned to a certain point in their educational career. The ACT also has a writing-optional portion that students are encouraged to take.

Students should be aware that each test also is graded differently. The SAT will take the number of correct answers and then subtract a fraction of the wrong answers so a student could be penalized for random guesses.

"If a student feels he has to answer every question and he doesn't guess well, his score's going to go down," Woodell-Freire said. "If you can get items down to one or two that they're fairly certain, then it's recommended to take your shot."

The ACT, on the other hand, is graded only on the number of right answers, with no points subtracted for wrong answers.

Students should come up with a preliminary list of schools to visit with their parents and make trips during the week-long vacations of the junior year. Some students, like Searles, have been relying on virtual tours to get a feel for certain campuses, but the counselors urge, if possible, to get out and visit the schools.

"And it's legal for parents to ask questions during the tour," Woodell-Freire said wryly.

Check the colleges' websites or call the admissions offices to find out if they interview prospective applicants and have your high school provide an unofficial transcript, if possible. Many larger schools don't give interviews.

Always follow up with a school that has taken the time to see you either through e-mail or a phone call.

"It's those little things, when these admissions counselors are poring over thousands of applications, that can make you stand out," Dudley said.

Be aware that colleges may look up your profile on Facebook or another social networking site, so be sure what's available for public viewing is appropriate.

Many students are stymied about choosing a topic for their essay, but Bombard advised to just make it personal.

"Think of those three to five things that continually come up when you reflect on your life. Sometimes it's a birthday party for your grandma, the car that got into an accident on I-95 and then what is it about that situation. If I've never met you before, that gives me a glimpse of what you're about and how this has shaped your life," Bombard said. "It's not a sit-down-and-zip-out-an-essay in two days."

So what matters most in the college transcript?

Certainly specifics vary from school to school, but the Glens Falls counselors agree that colleges are most concerned with a student's GPA and class rank, rigor of the high school curriculum and extracurricular involvement in clubs, sports and community service.

A trend that continues to grow each year is the number of colleges that are going test-optional. This is good news to those students who don't test very well but still have demonstrated a strong work ethic and GPA.

"I would argue that you're really only looking at one test, one day and (standardized tests) don't give the greatest emphasis on the student as an individual. Colleges (that are test-optional) are saying to look holistically at the student over their four years and what they're bringing to us," Bombard said.

Even if a student has done everything "right" during high school and took the appropriate courses, belonged to every club, scored well on the SAT, and wrote a Harvard-worthy college essay, there is still the chance that he or she won't get into the favored school. As many more students apply with equally impressive credentials, there will be rejection.

Still, Dudley said, there is a place for everyone.

"We find that our students are satisfied where they end up going to college, but the whole process is a learning experience - and they often surprise themselves where they find their fit," she said.


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