Fall doesn’t just mean football and colorful leaves. It’s also college application season, the time that high school seniors are rushing to pull together packets of information about themselves that will assure their admission into their perfect colleges.

That’s a lot of pressure. So we thought we’d ask a three local experts for a little help. Here are their responses.

Steve Frappier is director of college counseling at The Westminster Schools. He is a co-recipient of the National Association of College Admission Counseling’s 2018 Excellence in Education Award.

Steve Frappier of The Westminster Schools.

Q: How do I decide what college is right for me?

A: The phrase “the right college” deserves a deeper look, because, ideally, all colleges on a student’s list should be contenders for enrollment. It’s important to establish and discuss essential characteristics with your family — and to revisit those parameters as you continue to grow and evolve during senior year.

Academic programs, cost, distance, and envisioning your surroundings (your new home) all play important roles. What personalities and activities do you want around you, while you’re 18 to 22 years old? And in what sized campus and city? Most students change their majors multiple times; as academic interests evolve, is the course catalog large enough to accommodate potential shifts?

A college’s ranking has never delivered anyone success; your feeling of belonging will be that guide. Every day in my work, too, I reflect on being a first-generation college attendee, and one’s instincts are an important guide, too.

Q: How many schools should I apply to?

A: The national average is about four, but the real answer is: to however many colleges will ultimately result in affordable options that meet your criteria and family’s parameters.

Q: What’s the best way to make my application stand out?

A: Academics first, but not at all cost. Grades matter through graduation, but there’s so much more to senior year than ruminating over grades.
What are you doing with what you’re doing? Many students are titled leaders of clubs. Questions that could be asked in admissions committees can include: Does that “club” have any members? How do the members feel about that leader’s style? How will this leader pass the torch prior to graduation? How do we think this applicant works with faculty advisors? Positive impact versus busy-ness.

Play to your strengths, including choosing intended majors that most sensibly align with your performance, course selection, and goals.
Write truly and authentically — and proofread.

Refuse to let too many well-intentioned adults “get in your head,” or worse, handle your application materials. This should be your set of applications and your rite of passage. When I worked in admissions, one of the phrases that I used when I sensed an overworked application: a hammered-down nail doesn’t stick out.

Q: Should I take the SAT or ACT or both?

A: About one-third of Georgians in the Class of 2019 took the PSAT as juniors, and of this group, many students knew from their PSAT score whether they were likely to continue with the SAT, or if they were willing to try the ACT. All American colleges accept both tests equally, with ACT being more popular than the SAT as of 2016. For those taking both the ACT and the SAT, check out the brand-new percentile comparison charts from the testing agencies, to determine which score is your best to send.

Q: Should I take an SAT prep course?

A: How a student familiarizes with a test — of any kind — is a personal decision. Tutoring is not a mandate in this process, and nationwide, most student do not seek a tutor due to financial restrictions.

There are worthwhile and free online resources provided by Khan Academy (for the SAT) and by ACT Academy. Some students do crave the structure of an individual or group class; others might want to try a test on their own before seeking out help toward reaching a target score.

For seniors who are testing or retesting this fall, it’s a matter of managing your calendar and registering ahead of time for the ACT (remaining dates in September, November, and December) and the SAT (remaining dates in October, November, and December) in order to meet colleges’ deadlines, which are often by early January.

My main advice is to keep the process in perspective. The college process boils down to three kinds of decisions: where to apply, where a student is admitted, and where to enroll. The applicant is in complete control of two of these three, yet we often lose sight of how much agency young people have due to anxiety about the “getting in” part.

Shamona Harrell is head school counselor at Riverwood International Charter School.

Shamona Harrell of Riverwood International Charter School.

Q: How do I decide what college is right for me?

A: As counselors, we advise students to consider multiple factors while developing their prospective college lists. These factors include school type (public, private, two- or four-year), size, location and climate, travel distance from home, cost (tuition, room and board) and availability of scholarships, available majors and special interests, acceptance rate, etc.

Q: How many schools should I apply to?

A: Some students know exactly where they want to apply; others want to develop a broader list to include a wider range of colleges. An average list typically includes six to eight colleges covering various cost and admission ranges.

Q: What’s the best way to have my application stand out?

A: Students are advised to meet the application deadlines and that includes deadlines for all supporting documentation. Secondly, the student’s short answer essays or personal statement as well as teacher recommendations can truly help the student stand out among multiple students applying for the same spot in a freshman class. We like to be able to learn about the student from reading their essays. Thirdly, we advise students to make sure senior grades are maintained at the highest level possible.

Q: Should I take the SAT or ACT or both?

A: We typically recommend students take at least one real SAT and one ACT to determine if they prefer one test over the other one.

Q: Should I take an SAT prep course?

A: We first advise students to do a little self-reflection. If they are very disciplined and will set aside weekend hours to practice sample test questions available on the internet, they can benefit tremendously from this at no cost. Practicing questions and reviewing the answers is a great start. Secondly, Riverwood offers test prep classes at a minimal cost. Thirdly, students can pay for test prep through several local companies and private tutors.

Tyler Sant is director of college counseling at Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.

Tyler Sant of Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School.

Q: How do I decide what college is right for me?

A: Finding what college is right for you requires both research and self-reflection. Knowing yourself is just as important as knowing something about a variety of colleges.

Once you have an idea of what’s important to you — the things you might want to study, the types of people you want to be around, the sort of environment in which you feel comfortable —you can begin to match colleges to those criteria. And there’s no one-and-only-best-fit college.
Keep an open mind and explore broadly. You’ll find many colleges where you can be happy and successful.

Q: How many schools should I apply to?

A: There’s no right or wrong answer to this (unless you’re applying to a huge number of schools with little understanding of how they might be a good fit; in that case, that’s a wrong answer).

The college counseling team at HIES encourages students to apply to anywhere from two to eight colleges, depending on the likeliness of admission and the timing of the applications. A thoughtful student might begin senior year with a longer list of schools in mind but prioritize their top choices for earlier deadlines.

If you get good news early from a school that you love, you might not end up sending additional applications afterward. We have students every year who only send one application, though most of our seniors send four to six.

Q: What’s the best way to have my application stand out?

A: I would argue that the best way to have your application stand out is to avoid trying to make it stand out. Don’t prepare the application that you think the admission office wants; prepare the application that is true to you. Play to your strengths and highlight the things you sincerely care about, academically and beyond.

Remember to think of the application as one complete package. Each component presents an opportunity to introduce something about yourself.

Don’t trade an opportunity to share what’s important to you in favor of something you think will be more “impressive” or stand out.

Q: Should I take the SAT or ACT or both?

A: It’s not a bad idea to take both the SAT and ACT once, assuming you have time during your junior year to do so without feeling rushed. For students who are short on time or just would prefer to head in one direction and stick with it, take a full-length mock exam for each and see which you perform better on.

If your scores are indistinguishable, pick the exam that felt most comfortable to you. While each exam tests similar content, the actual exam experiences are different.

Q: Should I take an SAT prep course?

A: Students who prepare for the SAT or ACT perform better on these tests than students who do not. However, the type of preparation I would recommend depends largely on the student and the family.

In-person test prep, whether in a class or one-on-one, can be very effective. It can also be expensive. An organized student who is willing to hold herself accountable to a schedule can see significant gains through free online test prep via Khan Academy for the SAT or the new ACT Academy.

No student should walk into the ACT or SAT feeling unprepared. Take advantage of the free resources available to you and consider additional prep when possible.

Joe Earle

Joe Earle is Editor-at-Large. He has more than 30-years of experience with daily newspapers, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.