Applying for college usually involves filling out a lengthy application, drafting an essay or two, rounding up some recommendations, then sending it all away in hopes of receiving that coveted fat envelope. But working up to that point requires a strategic course load and preparation that could begin as early as a student's freshman year in high school.
"Students can't decide senior year that they want to go to college," says Ed Graf, co-director of college counseling at Isidore Newman School. "Early, students should plan a curriculum to give them an option to go to college if that's what they choose."
High school students have a lot to think about before embarking on the college application process. Starting freshman year, they should choose the right classes — those that look appealing to higher education institutions and work toward fulfilling requirements for the Taylor Opportunity Program for Students (TOPS), which provides pupils with merit-based scholarships for colleges in Louisiana. Students also should start preparing for standardized tests; counselors advise them to take the tests early to allow enough time for retesting.
While the process may seem daunting, high schools around the city offer their students extensive resources when it comes to prepping them for college. Many offer opportunities to take college-level courses and even earn college credit, as well as offering standardized test preparation classes at school. School administrators also offer advice for the college-bound about different aspects of the process.AP Classes
One way area high schools prepare students for college is by offering Advanced Placement (AP) courses — part of a program run by the nonprofit College Board, which provides college-level high school courses to schools around the country.
"[Students are getting a fairly rigorous course and they're going to be challenged and encouraged to think at a high level," says Julie Hauber, college counselor at Academy of the Sacred Heart. "Usually when the college is looking at admission applications — being that the student is taking the highest level, the AP courses — he or she is positively favored."
Because of the increased difficulty of the classes, they are a good fit for stronger students who are motivated to work hard.
"The primary benefit of taking AP classes is that students are taking more challenging classes that will inspire them," Graf says. "Because they're harder, more challenging classes, these are strong students who in regular classes might not be inspired. ... Selective colleges expect students to have taken the most challenging classes offered."
How colleges deal with AP credits isn't always uniform.
"In some colleges, particularly public universities, students are given actual credit if they score high enough, and this can help them to graduate early," Graf says. "At many others, students are given advanced standing in disciplines because of strong AP test scores. Students may get scholarship money because the AP courses make their high school transcript stronger. The more selective the college, the less likely it is to give credit for AP work. The credit would be based on AP exam scores, not just taking the class."
AP classes offer students an opportunity to take exams that can provide many benefits, but the classes themselves also are advantageous in the admissions process because they indicate the student pushes him or herself academically.
"[Students should] take the most challenging courses offered to them and do well in them," says Betsey Stangel, college scholarship coordinator at Mt. Carmel Academy. "Sometimes schools are more interested in seeing students challenge themselves than having an absolutely perfect transcript. If you're talking about competitive colleges, the most important (thing) will be course rigor."
While Holy Cross High School does not offer AP classes, it does offer dual enrollment programs with the University of Louisiana at Monroe (ULM) and the University of New Orleans (UNO) that allow eligible students to earn college credit through those schools. Students in the ULM program take classes approved by the institution on Holy Cross' campus; students in the UNO program actually go to the university's campus and take college classes two days a week.
When it comes to taking college-prep classes, Graf advises students to be aware of the advantages but also design the right curriculum for the individual.
"They should take (these classes) if it's appropriate," he says. "Just to pile up AP classes is not in a student's best interest."Test Prep
Students don't have to look far off campus for help in preparing for standardized tests. Schools often inject test prep into their regular curriculum, but they may also offer extra classes after school or on the weekends.
Holy Cross works with Cambridge Educational Services, a company that provides test-preparation materials to schools to develop curricula to reflect what will appear on standardized tests. Holy Cross also offers weekend-long test-prep programs the week before the ACT is administered. At Mount Carmel, teachers can become trained to teach Princeton Review test tactics. Other schools, such as Cabrini and Sacred Heart, offer test-prep classes after school for a small fee. At Xavier University Preparatory School, professors from Xavier University and UNO instruct teachers in how to best infuse test prep into their classes. The school also offers a junior-level class focused on test prep, as well as test preparation classes on Saturdays.
Counselors advise students to take standardized tests as soon as possible so they can re-take the tests if necessary.
"We recommend that students take (tests) early in the spring of their junior year," Hauber says. "That allows them time to retest after that."
Students also should take both the ACT and SAT tests to discover which they prefer, then use it to their advantage. They also should look to books and online materials for extra help in preparing for the exams. Ultimately, however, students should realize that test scores are only one component of the college admission process.
"As far as test scores, they're not the sole things schools are looking at," Stangel says. "Students should take the most challenging courses offered to them and do well in them. I'm a strong believer that focusing on test scores and GPA is so misguided. Students have got to explore the curriculum, take honors and AP (classes), and step up to the plate."ADVICE
High school students have a network of support in their own schools that can alleviate any worries about the sometimes-scary college application process. Counselors advise students to take advantage of this network. Representatives from colleges often will visit high schools, Stangel says, and there are also college fairs around the city and the state that students should attend to learn more about individual institutions, their admission policies and what to expect once on campus. She also says to explore financial aid options before ruling out schools as too expensive.
"You'd be surprised, even though there's TOPS (in Louisiana), some of these selective (out-of-state) schools end up being as affordable as in-state," she says.
Even if students intend to go to school outside Louisiana, Stangel advises them to apply for TOPS. Since the award money covers eight semesters of college, students may still be able to use their TOPS scholarships if they later decide to transfer to a Louisiana school.
Graf advises students to get to know their guidance counselors and start preparing early for their higher education experience. "Take college prep classes from the beginning (of high school)," he says. "Students should certainly make an effort to spend time with a guidance counselor in high school. Counselors have big case loads, but students should take the initiative to have a conversation about what they want to do after high school."
Chances are, school counselors have a lot of resources for students applying for college. For example, Ben Franklin High School uses a computer program from the company Naviance that helps streamline the admission process. Among other features, it has a database of the high school's history of acceptance and rejection rates for colleges where its students have applied.
Janet DeGrazio, a counselor at Ben Franklin, says students should apply to between five and eight schools to keep their options open: "A couple of challenging schools that they're not sure they'll get into, a few where there's a chance they'll get in and can afford, and a few they know they can get it in to and would be happy to go. That way, they won't be disappointed if something doesn't come through with them."
Tommy Fonseca, director of counseling and guidance at Holy Cross, advises students to ask questions, explore, and not be intimidated by the admissions process or the prospect of choosing a college major.
"If you're a junior or senior in high school, and if you're already starting to freak out or your parents are starting to freak out because you're not exactly sure what you want to be — it's OK. One thing we don't allow students (to do) is to shut down," he says. "The basic message is to work hard, and do well."