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Posted at 6:30 AM ET, 01/27/2010

The college chase: Making a plan

By Valerie Strauss

Even parents who have carefully plotted every step of their child’s education can get flummoxed over the colleges admissions process. It seems overwhelming--because it is.

You (and I)--and, mostly, our kids, have a lot of work ahead. The vast majority of families will not have the luxury of having someone else plan out the application process and will have to it themselves.

Yes, high schools have college admissions counselors, but recent budget cuts have reduced staff, giving the remaining counselors many more students for whom they are responsible.

According to the 2009 State of College Admissions report issued a few months ago by the non-profit National Association for College Admission Counseling, 45 percent of public school counselors and 17 percent of private school counselors indicated that the student-to-counselor ratios at their schools increased for this school year.

And it was pretty high before the year began.

According to the association’s 2008 Counseling Trends Survey, the average high school student-to counselor ratio--including part-time staff, was 246 to 1. But the 2009 admissions report says that public school counselors reported, on average, an increase of 53 more students each for the 2009-10 year. Private school counselors reported, on average, an increase of 16 students.

That’s a lot of students for a single counselor to shepherd through the process. Imagine yourself trying to make sure that 300 kids have filled out essays, obtained teacher recommendations, sent transcripts, taken admissions tests, learned about financial aid, etc. I’m half panicking thinking about doing this for just one (my daughter, who is a junior).

Even for those families with kids who are privileged enough to go to private or public schools with counselors who can pay close attention, there is still a lot of work outside school that needs to be done.

So where to start?

Make a plan.

How do you know the steps?

Many school districts offer calendars and roadmaps, available on the system’s website. For example, Montgomery County Public Schools offers helpful information here.

But the truth is that a lot of the information available from school districts isn’t specific enough. Many people may see a long calendar of test and application deadlines but be unable to decipher the unrecognizable abbreviations used in describing the tasks ahead.

A free alternative is start at the College Board’s website, where there are fairly detailed instructions provided, grade by grade, season by season, starting with 9th grade.

Here are the websites by grade:
Freshmen: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/plan/action/freshmen.html
Sophomores: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/plan/action/sophomores.html
Juniors: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/plan/action/juniors.html
Seniors: http://www.collegeboard.com/student/plan/action/seniors.html

Individual colleges and universities also offer advice to high school students. For example, the University of Wisconsin’s website has advice here for students in grades 8-11.

Many counselors will tell you not to think about the admissions process until the middle of junior year. Fat chance most families are going to wait until then.

So if you are going to start earlier, and most of you will, get organized. If, like me, organization is not your strongest suit, do it anyway. This is too important to muddle through.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 27, 2010; 6:30 AM ET
Categories:  College Admissions  | Tags:  college admissions  
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