The Search for the Golden Diploma … in a fiercely competitive world, parents have begun to play this game on behalf of their children.  They play with intense, focused finesse in order to help students rise to the top in the college registrar’s office.   Today’s parents are more involved and determined than ever before to see their students enter top collegiate programs.

New businesses open daily dedicated to serving families and making the quest for college an easier one.  Not to mention that parents may even choose to hire assistance for test preparation, some of which guarantee an increase in SAT scores.  With mailboxes full of promotional materials and guidance for college preparation, there are some basic  pieces of information parents should keep in mind and secrets often ignored.

Begin college planning in middle school

As soon as a student enters middle school (MS), parents should become educated as to what lies ahead on the path to successful education. Begin with a visit to www.schoolcounselor.org and click on the PARENT page at the top.  This will start the parent’s education process for working with the high school (HS) guidance office.  Guidance counselors recommend parents of eighth-grade students understand there are subjects that will transfer to high school.  Math, foreign language and speech will give a jump-start into high school curricula and recommended and distinguished programs.  A student who begins algebra in MS will likely be recommended for calculus in HS if grade requirements are met.

Also, MS is the time to begin the critical college conversations.  HS guidance counselor Tina King says, “Begin to speak with your eighth-grader about college.  Which ones do they like and get excited about?  Even if it is because of an athletic team, take your student to the campuses and visit at this early age.  When they see what they are working toward and get excited about it, the student often begins to work harder and take academics with more serious intention.”

Local families do not have to go far to find the excitement of college campuses.  Thriving universities exist within and around the city with student population numbers continuing to grow past projections for 2015.  To get a student college-focused, consider visits or attending athletic competitions for these campuses (see sidebar).

Once parents begin to understand the colleges their student desires to attend, then visit those websites and make note of the college admission requirements for the specific campus.  Sit down with the student and review these requirements at the beginning of their high school career.  Suzanne M. Petrusch, vice president for enrollment management at St. Mary’s University, adds, ”At St. Mary’s, we recognize the importance of our own site, but we understand that we also have to be accessible through external sites and planning tools such as Cappex, Chegg, CollegeView, My College Options, Private Colleges & Universities, and Welcome to College, which, incidentally, was launched by my colleague Justin Bayer to help students explore potential schools where they are likely to create meaningful relationships.”

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For the college search, the best relationship you can develop is with the high school guidance counselor.  In large public schools, these offices will deal predominately with the student, so parents will need to call and set up appointments to make sure important conversations occur.

King says, “It is most beneficial to take your student to visit colleges during the school year when the campuses are full and functioning.  Sit in on classes and walk the campus.  This is the best way to see if it fits your student and family.”  

Also, before going for the visit, make an appointment with the college admissions counselor and allow them to speak with your student and map out academic goals.  These goals can be taken back to HS and a track developed with the HS counselor to set your student on the right path to attend the college they desire.

Remember, each student is different.  They have unique likes and dislikes, and some possess different learning styles. This means parents should consider which college programs are the best for their student.  Some will be fine in large urban universities; some in smaller suburban colleges; some may function better with online programs; and some will flourish in smaller specialty colleges for specific fields.   There will be students who prefer private religious schools, which are excellent throughout Texas.  Again, visits to the campuses online and in person are critical and may begin early.

“At the outset, I recommend students visit different types of schools – a large public, a medium-sized institution and a small private – so they can get a feel for the type of institution at which they might be most comfortable,” explains Petrusch.  “As they narrow their search, they should schedule visits to schools likely to be in their application set. It’s OK to make visits as a junior. The campus visit is also the time to assess your student’s gut reaction when they are asked, `Is this a place that you could call home for four years?’”

Of course, these visits and conversations are times to allow your student to understand the importance of grades and testing.  Not only do they play a key role in acceptance, but also a key role in financial scholarship opportunities.  Top scores can equal money on the table, and this is why so many families seek tutoring for the ACT and SAT tests.

“Your high school experience does matter,” agrees Petrusch. “Over the course of my career, I have met too many students who say that they wish they had understood the consequences of not caring during the first year or so of high school. I recommend students choose challenging courses and give their best effort every day. They should take the SAT and ACT as a junior and also be sure to sit for the tests again as a senior.  Apply during the fall of senior year, and never let a deadline slip past.”

GAIN PURPOSEFUL EXPERIENCE

An overlooked yet important step is to build a résumé in high school that reflects a well-rounded and career-focused student.  Local graduate Samuel Wolfe understood this in high school and built an impressive résumé toward attending a top college for his future communications or law career.  He enters college this fall at Texas Tech University with a résumé from high school that includes a purposeful part-time job for two years at Best Buy, an internship with the San Antonio Police Communications Department, a football season part-time job with WOAI TV, attendance in Washington, D.C., at a national journalism conference at George Mason University and returning the next year as a counselor, and participation for four years on the school’s broadcast journalism team.

Wolfe says, “What helped me most to focus on college in high school was definitely the extracurricular.  I got hands-on experience in the field, and I got to talk to people who have achieved what I want.  Education in the classroom can only take you so far.”

University of Texas at Austin junior Logan Cheney agrees with doing the most extra work and focusing it on your field of interest in high school. 

Cheney says, “I do believe the biggest thing that gave me a competitive edge over my peers was credible experience in my field while in high school. There were friends of mine with perfect grades in high school that weren’t accepted into the same school I was, simply because their résumé was barren.  They have told me many times that they wished they had focused more on gaining needed experience through internships early on, because now they are playing catch-up with me.  Some of my peers are at the same professional level right now that I was when I was a junior in high school.  Internships in high school are a springboard for a competitive edge in the workforce immediately after high school and especially during undergrad.”

These outside jobs and internships also provide opportunities for the much needed letters of recommendation many colleges and scholarships require.  These are best provided through teachers, bosses or industry professionals from the career field the student desires to pursue.  Finally, the additional experiences provide lessons learned that may be the theme for college essays.  One of the topics in Texas for the essays requests the student write of lifetime goals and career goals.

Parents should make sure the student gives proper attention to the résumé and letters of recommendation.  Seek help from the school guidance office and even consider if the family should hire an education professional to guide the student through the process.  These steps are important even if the student begins by attending a two-year college such as in the Alamo Community College District, Blinn Community College in Bryan-College Station or Austin Community College in Austin.  All provide excellent guidance to point the student toward success in a top university program.

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SUBMIT ALL DOCUMENTS, INCLUDING faFSa

Finally, all parents need to fill out and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). 

“It is a common misconception by parents that they do not need to fill out FAFSA if they do not have a financial need,” King says.  “Colleges are required to gain this information regardless of the family income.   Also, colleges will require the FAFSA form in order to regulate and award academic and merit scholarships and not just financial need scholarships.” 

Many parents will forgo the document, and this can slow the acceptance process.  Families may use tax information for the previous year for early acceptance applications, and then update after the first of the year with new information.

Beginning early, enhancing the high school résumé and submitting all documents, including the FAFSA, are often overlooked keys to the college acceptance kingdom.  San Antonio and the surrounding area boast of premier collegiate programs.  From the new thriving field of cyber security at UTSA and Texas A & M San Antonio to creative fields, including animation and fashion design, at the San Antonio Art Institute, the area is full of career opportunity for students and higher education tailored especially to career goals.  It just requires determination, focus, diligence and a well-researched plan of action put in place by parents and students together.

By Pamela Lutrell