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Insider Tips and Advice for College Bound Students

Counselors and college admissions representatives in southeast Michigan share tips for families to help in mastering the college application process

The college application process can seem daunting, but understanding the process is more than half the battle according to those who live and breathe college admissions on a daily basis. Some metro Detroit experts share their advice.

Encourage your child's interests early

Jane Williams, an independent college consultant and owner of College Admissions Consulting in Birmingham, advises families that they can start helping prepare their child for college when the child is still in elementary school.

"When I say that, I mean start to look at what your child is really good at," she explains. "What do they excel in? What are their strengths? So many students are so busy with soccer or dance or another activity that they aren't introspective and don't know what they love in life.

"I tell parents to find their child's strengths and encourage those. Ideally, I would then meet with the family when the child is a high school freshman to help guide them in selecting courses in subjects that intrigue them. They can then tailor their community service hours around their interests or pursue volunteer or work opportunities in that area."

The idea is that when the child is then developing a college list, he or she can evaluate schools based on whether they offer programs that appeal to his or her interest. When they later apply, they will have relevant course work and experience to set them apart both for admission and possible scholarships.

Establish contact

Jason Whalen is a counselor at Clarkston High School. He says that so many students fill out the college application form, press submit and hope for the best when there is so much more they can do including maintaining contact with their main schools of interest.

"Colleges are tracking their contact with students," he explains. "They track such things as whether the student has visited the campus, whether he or she sent an email or made a phone call. My advice then is to make sure your college visits aren't just a drive by. Let the school know you were there by participating in a formal campus visit. I also encourage students to come up with at least one really good question they can email to an admissions representative at the school."

Establish relationships with teachers and counselors

Letters of recommendation are a requirement of the application package for many colleges and universities. Typically, one of those letters is from a student's high school counselor and one or two are from a teacher of a core subject (math, science, English, foreign language or social studies). Having a relationship in place before the need for a letter arises is only of benefit to the student.

"Establish a good relationship with at least a few of your teachers," Williams recommends. "Go in early. Stay later. Develop that bond. Students will usually say that getting to know a teacher was really a great idea. Go out of your way to make that relationship happen."

Whalen concurs. "One of the things we tell students and parents on college nights is that a big part of the application is what people say about you and what you say about yourself," he says. "Connect with teachers. You don't want to lose that opportunity for people to know you."

The same is true for a high school counselor, he notes: "Your counselor can advocate for you to help put your particular situation into context for an admissions representative," he says.

Be aware of financial aid options

Beth Fagan, an independent college consultant from Bloomfield Hills, wants families to be aware of the actual costs of college and the financial aid resources available.

"I worry that parents are not realistically prepared for the price tag of four to five years of undergraduate studies," she says. "There are a lot of ancillary costs to consider – like airfare, gas, computer, books, etc. – that many parents don't take into consideration. But there are lots of great opportunities for kids to take advantage of work-study programs at school, to get a job or to go to a community school for a few years."

John Ambrose, the associate director for inclusion and strategic planning in the at Michigan State University's admissions office, sat his own daughter down while she was still in eighth grade and asked her to select $1 million worth of scholarships from websites like Scholarships.com and Fastweb.com – and then to write down the experiences she'd need to have obtained to be considered for them when applying to college.

"She is now in 10th grade and is getting those experiences she will need in order to apply for those scholarships," he says.

Be realistic

Upon meeting with a student and his or her family, Fagan typically starts by walking them through the College Board website, as its data-driven content enables students to realistically understand their chances for being accepted to a particular school.

"The site gives you everything – down to a breakdown of demographics on who attends these schools, the percentage of students on financial aid, average ACT score, average grade point average, etc.," she says. "Students can then see where they fall within the realm."

Fagan and Williams both stress that they would never advise a student set on applying to a particular school that that may be a stretch, but rather, to understand the criteria of student typically accepted – and to be sure other schools are on their list, as well.

"I arm that student with the knowledge on what is required to get into that school, and if he or she wants to apply, great. We will help," Williams says.

Fagan also notes that students can always get their grades up and go to one school before transferring to a stretch school.

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