The Road to College

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Start early and keep on course while navigating the path to higher education.

“Choosing a college is like purchasing a car,” says Brentwood High School Guidance Counselor Dan Winfree. “You’ve got to test drive them,” he adds, referring to a high school student’s necessity to start the search early and thoroughly investigate each option before making a final decision about where to spend the next four years in higher education.

The Early High School Years

Since the college application process usually starts in the fall of the senior year, a student’s academic achievement in grades 9 – 11 is the first thing a prospective college will look at. However, it’s not just the grades that are important, but also the kind of classes a student has taken.

“The first thing a college or university will look for is the student’s academic preparation and everything that is included in that,” says Kathy Baugher, associate provost and dean of enrollment services at Belmont University. She adds that colleges scrutinize the difficulty of the high school curriculum and how well the student did in it along with his overall ability to succeed.

Baugher says students should take a solid college preparatory curriculum that includes math, English, science, history and languages, emphasizing the importance of taking honors courses in the subjects where their talents and interests lie.

“The first advanced placement (AP) class a student can take is in his sophomore year,” says Winfree, who suggests taking one or two more during the junior and senior years, reiterating the importance of taking AP classes versus standard options.

Aside from grades, extracurricular activities add a lot of color to the college application. “Institutions have personalities, too, and look for students who are a good fit considering what activities they were involved with during high school,” says Baugher.

Winfree agrees. “Colleges are looking at the wholeness of the applicant. They seek students involved in clubs, sports, community service, etc.,” Winfree says. “A big factor that serves as a feather in the cap is any kind of leadership position,” he adds.

Starting the Search

Baugher and Winfree agree that the earlier the better when it comes to scouting out schools of interest. “The Internet has shortened the process,” says Winfree. Web sites like Peterson’s ( are valuable in helping students find schools that fit their criteria.

First and foremost, students should decide what that criteria is and what’s important in the school they want to attend. Factors to consider are location, size, cost, student body, academics, special activities, housing, campus life, setting, religious affiliation and more.

Students should attend information sessions and campus visits whenever possible, as early as the sophomore year. Take the opportunity to visit schools during family vacations if traveling through a town where there is a college of interest. “During the junior year, schedule another visit, meet with professors who teach in the area of interest and sit in on classes,” Baugher says about narrowing the search.

During the student’s junior year, he should take both college placement tests: the ACT and SAT. Both exams test intellect in different ways. Neither test weighs more heavily than the other, but some colleges do have preferences between the two and most accept both scores. Both tests are offered for a limited amount of time each year at select local high schools and universities. To find ACT test dates, visit; to find SAT test dates, visit

Keep in mind that college admissions counselors initially only see the first three years of high school grades, but that doesn’t mean it’s OK to slack off during the senior year. Institutions where students apply WILL receive final grades after the senior year, and if grades slip, so might the college’s interest.

The College Interview

Some schools require an interview while others offer them. Remember, interviews are a two-way street. They provide the school with a much better view of the applicant, and the student can get a more complete feel for the university as well.

“During a more informational interview, schools want to get to know the student better, to match things up, to see if there’s a fit,” says Baugher. “However, the more competitive the school or major, the more the interview is a big piece of the admission process and decision.”

Baugher says students should be prepared to say, “This is who I am and why I’m a good fit.” If there are any gaps or holes anywhere in the academic record, be prepared to answer that. “Schools also want to know that the student is an inquisitive learner,” Baugher adds. “What students do outside of the classroom on their own is important.” Questions may range from “What is the most recent book you’ve read for fun?” to “What is your greatest personal accomplishment to date?”


Tuition is a big factor on the college-bound path, and securing scholarship money often tips the scales on where a student will attend.

“Most scholarships are through the individual universities themselves, and students want to be sure they’ve done everything to get their names in the hat,” says Winfree. “When applying to a school, be sure check with the Financial Aid Office for scholarship opportunities. Schools are trying to attract students, and they’ll usually do whatever it takes to get them there.”

In addition to school-based scholarships, there are other local and national ones out there. is a great place to start. Students can enter their information, intended majors and career objectives, and the site helps them find scholarship opportunities that can range from $1,000 to more than $40,000.

Chad Young is managing editor for this publication.

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