College plans must start early

Delay: Procrastination in gathering information could prevent students from getting into their top choices or hurt chances for financial aid.



For many high school students and their parents, procrastination is as much a part of applying to college as taking the SAT.

The future often seems like a better time than now for perusing stacks of college information, preparing for the SAT, visiting colleges, filling in admissions application forms, writing essays and scouting for scholarships.

"In the last couple of years, a significant portion of our applicants have been off track in terms of timing," said Karen Stakem Hornig, vice president for enrollment management at the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. "They are putting off doing things and pushing the process later."

Students who wait too long to begin the college application process might miss critical deadlines and reduce their chances of gaining admission, receiving need-based financial aid or merit scholarships and securing campus housing.

"Students have got to get organized with the process." Hornig said. By starting early, they can avoid missing deadlines and being over-whelmed by details during their busy senior year of high school.

Ideally, some admissions officers say, college planning should begin during the freshman and sophomore years of high school - but certainly no later than fall of the junior year.

Too many students, they say, wait until the spring of their junior year or later to hurriedly gather college materials, surf through college Web sites and consider the academic programs at institutions. An earlier start provides time for students and their families to take an in-depth look at a broad range of schools so they can make informed decisions, said Tom Taylor, assistant provost for enrollment at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"They should look at different kinds of institutions, compare and contrast the range of costs and have a candid conversation about what may or may not be affordable," Taylor said. It's always a good idea to include a more affordable school among applications, he added.

Ninth grade is a good time to begin looking into scholarships, said Vince Pecora, director of financial aid for Towson University. Take advantage of a free scholarship search through a Web site such as Contact groups with which the student's family is affiliated for possibilities, Read library reference books. Talk to guidance counselors.

Keep track of scholarships by making an index card for each, Pecora recommended. Include important requirements such as essay subjects, and file according to application date.

Update the file cards each year and save them until senior year, when essays should be written and scholarship applications submitted. At that time, be sure to check regularly with your guidance counselor for additional scholarships.

"You can wait to do the research until your senior year, but you'll be more hurried and you're going to miss some," Pecora said. "And the longer you wait the more difficult it's going to be to meet the conditions."

To achieve the best score possible on the SAT, students should begin by taking the preliminary test (PSAT) no later than fall of the junior year. Then, get an SAT practice workbook from a bookstore or library and prepare for the test for several months.

Watch out for registration deadlines for testing and sign up early -- or you might find yourself closed out of a test date or end up taking the SAT at an inconvenient location.

Colleges use the highest score on the math and verbal sections, so it's recommended that students take the SAT several times - once late in the junior year and then several times in the fall of the senior year. Don't Wait until December of the senior year to take the SAT for the first time.

"Early and often is the basic rule of thumb for taking the SAT," said Hornig at Notre Dame.

Students should evaluate the colleges they plan to apply to by visiting no later than the summer between the junior and senior years, said Angel Jackson, director of admissions for Towson University.

By the start of their senior year, they should have applications in hand for their narrowed-down list of an ideal five - but no more than 10 institutions. All should be submitted no later than Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Get organized by setting up a file folder for each institution with catalog, application, financial aid form and other materials inside, Hornig recommends.

Staple a checklist to the front noting application, financial aid and campus housing deadlines, dates of open houses, subject of essay, the number of recommendation letters required and other pertinent dates. Note whether review for scholarships is automatic or a separate form is required. Keep a record of when each item is completed.

Fill in each application carefully to avoid some of the mistakes seen in college admissions offices questions left unanswered, required documents missing, essays with the incorrect school name, messy writing and grammatical errors.

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