Getting into Your College of Choice

A guide to tackling the college application process

By Margaret Clay

Photography by Robert Clark

There is possibly no decision in a child’s life as momentous as choosing where to go to college. Due to the rising number of submitted applications each year, it has become more important than ever to prepare for the college admission process. The catch is that it is often hard to know where to begin. With important choices to make like whether to take the SAT or the ACT, unknowns such as what scholarships are available and what they require for consideration, and when to even start the whole process, the prospect of applying to colleges can be overwhelming.

College guidance counselors from both public and independent high schools around the Midlands offer their expertise on some of these difficult questions. In addition, some local parents who have just completed the process with their recent graduates share tips they learned from firsthand experience.

Tips from Local College Guidance Counselors

What character qualities are most important to colleges?
“Colleges want students who are both engaged and engaging … inside the classroom and out. They want students who are honest, who demonstrate integrity and who exhibit a strong work ethic. A sense of humor never hurts either.” René Bickley, Hammond School

“Colleges are looking for students with unique qualities, who will contribute to the life of the campus. Some of these qualities include strong leadership abilities, a sense of social responsibility, a commitment to service, special talents or abilities and initiative. Overall, colleges want a mix of students to create a rich, diverse campus community.” Cherise Jacobs, Irmo High School

“Students should evaluate the type of environment where they learn the best and strive to find a college that offers a comparable setting. Also, it is important to find a college where they feel they will have a high level of comfort and a strong sense of belonging.” Michael Goodwin, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School

What should students consider when trying to find “the perfect fit” in a school?

“Always see the college in person and don’t rely on someone else’s impression. Students need to determine their comfort zones with a variety of factors, including the accessibility of professors, opportunities for undergraduate research, location, diversity of majors and spirit of the student body. If students are truly happy on the college campus, they will more likely be successful and involved in the overall college experience.” Cynthia Bronco, Cardinal Newman

“The perfect fit is different for every student. And as time progresses throughout the four years of high school, students’ interests and priorities may change. One school may speak to the student during their junior year, but by the time applications come available in August, the student may go in another direction. There is more than one right school for each student. Some students found that they really wanted to be one place, but ended up in another and absolutely had a fantastic experience. For students who have learning differences, it is also important to consider the resources colleges offer for non-traditional learners (ADD, ADHD, Aspergers, LD, etc.), including class size, a specialized individual advisor, assistive technologies, classroom and testing accommodations and a fully staffed learning center.” Kathryn Hillard Stuart, Glenforest School

“I recommend parents and students sit down at the beginning of the process and write down what the priorities are in selecting a college. Things such as location (close or far from home, urban or rural), cost, majors offered, athletics, size, organizations, internships or co-ops, grad school opportunities and research should be discussed. Rankings are often over-rated. Visiting the college is very important.” Terry Stoker, Ben Lippen School

How many schools should a student choose for applying?

“The general rule of thumb is to apply to at least five schools: one that is a ‘reach,’ three that the student would be most happy to attend, and one that is a ‘sure thing.’” Angela Daniel, Sandhills

What advice do you have for extracurricular activities as well as community service work?
“A student should not select activities to fill a resume. I recommend finding a passion and following it. Students should choose activities and community service work that allow them to solve problems and make a difference in their school, community or state.” Michael Goodwin, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School

“A student should define his or her interests. For example, if one is interested in art, he or she could attend art camps, volunteer at church art programs, hold a fundraiser for underserved schools to get new painting supplies, take art classes in school, build a portfolio, have small art shows in local banks, shadow a working artist, get a summer job at an art supply store.” Kathryn Hillard Stuart, Glenforest

“The most important thing for students to do is to get involved in areas that interest them and pursue them outside of the classroom. Colleges want to create a diverse student body of individuals with different talents, passions, backgrounds and skill sets; therefore, no one hobby or activity is superior to the next. They need leaders as well as followers. In regard to community service and volunteerism, colleges are also parts of their communities, and want students who will contribute on campus, in town and globally as well. Community service and leadership are important factors for college acceptance, but a greater factor for the education of the whole person.” Cynthia Bronco, Cardinal Newman

How should a student choose letters of recommendation?

“Most schools want to hear from teachers who know the student’s latest work best. With that in mind, junior year teachers usually make the best choice.” René Bickley, Hammond

“It is always wise to ask for letters of recommendation from teachers of core subjects, and in whose classes the student did well. Another letter of recommendation should come from an adult who has observed the student’s character, work ethic and dedication – a Scoutmaster, for example.” Angela Daniel, Sandhills

Should parents proof the essays?

“This depends on the family. The student may feel more comfortable handling the essay at school and having teachers proof the work. Most guidance counselors will also proof each essay. The essay should reflect the personality and voice of the student. The goal is for the college to get to know the applicants and hear what qualities they have to offer to that school.” Kathryn Hillard Stuart, Glenforest
“Someone should proofread the college essay for grammar, whether it is a teacher, guidance counselor or parent. There is a caveat, however. No one should edit the essay in a manner that changes the student’s point of view or voice. The essay should always be distinctive and true to the student. College admissions personnel can easily spot those essays that were written by parents.” Cynthia Bronco, Cardinal Newman

Do colleges offer more than one application?

“A few do. If a student is only applying to one college, I would suggest not using the Common Application but an alternative application, if the college offers one. It’s probably shorter with less supplementary material required. Remember, if using the Common Application, many colleges have supplementary materials specific to their schools that students also need to complete.” Terry Stoker, Ben Lippen
“Some colleges retain their original application formats when they begin using the Common Application, but treat all applicants equally regardless of which application they turned in. If you have the opportunity to use the Common Application for more than one school, it is best to use it.” Cynthia Bronco, Cardinal Newman

When should students have their applications finished?

“I tell students that if they can smell the turkey, it’s getting late. To be honest, the happiest seniors are those who complete the application process in early fall.” René Bickley, Hammond

How does one set up a college tour visit?

“Visit the college’s website. Most schools have their tour times posted. Students should wait until senior year to plan an overnight visit.” Michael Goodwin, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School

“Parents can make appointments online for college tours. The school usually has a 1 1/2 hour group tour available. It is great to sit in on a class, but this needs to be discussed with the admissions office, as different professors will have different philosophies on visitors attending their classes.” Kathryn Hillard Stuart, Glenforest

When should students start touring colleges?

“Sophomore and junior years are the best times to begin visiting campuses.” Cynthia Bronco, Cardinal Newman
“I recommend as early as the 9th and 10th grades. With early visits, students are able to learn the requirements of the colleges they like best. This is a great motivation for engaging in academics as well as extracurricular activities early in high school.” Michael Goodwin, Heathwood Hall Episcopal School

What are important factors for a successful application?

“The first thing is to start early. Reviewing an application in freshman year is helpful to the parents and students to actually see an application and understand what is being asked of the student for the next four years. It would be very stressful to read an application for the first time during senior year and realize that the colleges were asking for something that easily could have been added to the schedule four years ago.” Kathryn Hillard Stuart, Glenforest

“Be organized! Check application deadlines and allow sufficient time for essays, for recommendation letters and supplementary materials. Make sure standardized test scores have been sent from (SAT) and (ACT) in sufficient time to be processed by the deadline. Essays are a chance to let the admission counselor know more about the student. Don’t talk about having wanted to go to this college since childhood or try to guess what the admissions counselor wants to hear. Be sincere. Spend time on the essays and revise. Most colleges open applications online Aug. 1. Start working on them then, saving the application and returning to it online as needed.” Terry Stoker, Ben Lippen

How does a student choose between the SAT and the ACT?

“Students should take both the SAT and ACT during their junior year in high school and determine which one yields the best results. If students score in a higher percentile on one of the tests, then they should focus on and study for that particular test. If both test scores are comparable, then students should continue with the test that makes them the most comfortable. Colleges accept both tests as interchangeable, and SAT/ACT score conversion tables are available on the internet.” Cynthia Bronco, Cardinal Newman

“They should take both. Approximately 30 percent test better on the SAT, approximately 30 percent better on the ACT and approximately 30 percent test equally. A student will not know until he or she takes them both. If one results in a better score, take that one again the second time around.” Terry Stoker, Ben Lippen

When should a student begin preparation for the SAT/ACT? And how much tutoring is recommended?

“Students should begin preparing for the SAT/ACT as early as possible. Opportunities are given as early as 7th grade. Starting at a young age in test-preparation has the potential to help students with their test-taking skills and overall study skills. After taking test prep workshops and taking practice tests, students should get a tutor to help diagnose potential problem areas and focus on strategies that will minimize these problems, as well as buffer their strengths.” Cherise Jacobs, Irmo High School

“Taking the PSAT or PLAN/ACT during the sophomore year gives the student time to prepare for the junior year PSAT, which also serves as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, and time to assess individual strengths and weaknesses for each test. After taking a test for the first time, students should set goals for their scores according to the average scores of their prospective colleges and the score requirements for the scholarships they hope to attain, and then plan for tutoring or studying accordingly.” Cynthia Bronco, Cardinal Newman

“Begin practicing in the early fall of junior year. Tutoring is recommended if scores are significantly lower than the mean to get accepted into the colleges of choice.” Terry Stoker, Ben Lippen

“Students may begin preparing for the SAT as early as the sophomore year; however, it is recommended that students wait until the spring semester of their junior year before taking the exams. The math portions of both tests may be too advanced for students who have not taken Algebra II or any Trigonometry to be successful on the test.” Keicha Barnes, A.C. Flora

Tips from the Parents

When should students start touring colleges?

“During the second semester of our children’s junior year is when we toured. I would also recommend a campus visit while the college students are on the campus so your child can get a feel for the student population. Spending the night affords more time to get a feel for the college, such as students, professors and town or city in which the college is located.” Sheila and Mike Thacker, Sandhills
“In my opinion, this depends heavily on where you intend your search to begin and end. My daughter, Mimi, was interested in several out-of-state schools as far away as Dallas (SMU) and as close to home as Clemson University, with some in between, and we began touring her junior year. Often when a child is unsure of just where it is he or she wants to go, you must allow yourself extra time and weekends to schedule visits.”  Jan Marshall, Hammond

“We started touring schools when my son was a 10th grader, mostly because it takes so much time, and we visited schools all over the country. The great part of starting early was that my son heard over and over the factors that admissions officers think are important: taking difficult classes, investing time in a couple of key activities and obtaining good teacher recommendations.” Sue Cate, A.C. Flora
What was the most stressful part of the application process?

“I would have to say the most stressful part of the process was the grueling hours spent filling out college applications. Writing many essays specific to each college (my child applied to six different schools) and meeting the stringent deadlines while also attempting to keep up with a very rigorous course schedule senior year was difficult. In the end, the thousands of words written, the long applications and scary deadlines were exhausting, but it was all worth it as the acceptance letters arrived.” Jan Marshall, Hammond

“Probably the timing for taking the SAT/ACT, getting the essays written and waiting for the college’s decision regarding admission. Know the deadlines for each institution and any special requirements (writing an essay) that are a part of the packet you need to submit. Lots of colleges have Dec. 1 deadlines.” Dorcas Kitchings, Glenforest

“The most stressful part of the application process was waiting on Financial Aid. Apply as soon as taxes are filed, and constantly check with the office to see if any other information is needed from the applicant.” Diane McCoy, Glenforest

What do you wish you had known when your first child was going through the application process?

“I wish that I had kept better track throughout high school of awards, certifications and other information that is important for the college admission. I was able to track back through my calendars to find a lot of the information, but I’m sure we missed some items. I ended up using a spreadsheet to track the requirements for each school and scholarship application.” Jacqueline Finklea, Heathwood Hall

“Don’t get your heart set on a particular school because you don’t know exactly what type of student that school will want, and there are so many good schools. Also, I think it’s important to attend ‘accepted students weekend’ events to get a feel for the school when trying to make a decision.” Sue Cate, A.C. Flora

“It’s all a learning process with your first child. Our guidance department has been a huge resource. You should start the application process the summer before their senior year. It is helpful to gather all the information before beginning the process. If the application requires an essay, it is helpful to spend time preparing that in advance and even getting some help with it.” Margaret and Mark Barrow, Ben Lippen
“Focus on schools where your student ranks in the top 75th percentile. If your student’s scores place him or her in the 75th percentile for a particular school, the chance of admissions success and or procuring merit aid improve tremendously. So focus your efforts on the schools that make sense for him or her.” Laura Scharr, Irmo High School

When should students start the application process?

“I would encourage kids to apply Early Action as they have a greater chance of being admitted. Colleges, especially the top tier institutions, are filling upwards of half of their incoming freshman class through the Early Decision/Early Action* process. If students apply Early Action, they should start working on their essays the summer prior to their senior year. I discourage Early Decision as it gives a student far less negotiating power, since the decision is binding.” Laura Scharr-Bykowsky, Irmo High School

“I think students should begin looking at the applications during the early part of the summer before their senior year. There are essay questions for most applications that can be drafted out and a lot of the demographic data (names, addresses, etc.) can be prepped and ready to be added to the applications. But be careful. We made a huge mistake last summer. Jannie, our daughter, spent a lot of time filling out the Common Application on-line during June and July, but failed to print out a copy. Every year on August 1, the database for the Common App is dumped so that the new data can be gathered. Everything that Jannie had carefully entered during the summer months was lost. We tried everything, but the data was just gone.” Jacqueline Finklea, Heathwood Hall

What did you learn that students should consider when trying to find “the perfect fit” in a school?

“Read as much as possible about the school and about how students spend their leisure time. Talk to people who have gone to the school or who are going there now to get a feel for the school. Our college consultant had very good information that he shared with us.” Sue Cate, A.C. Flora

“It’s hard to find a ‘perfect fit’ in a school. What I would consider the perfect fit didn’t always match what my children thought. So we would make a pro and con list of the schools in which they were interested. Important factors were campus setting (college town or urban), size, distance from home, sports, costs and majors.” Joy Wilczewski, Cardinal Newman

“It is important as parents to keep an open dialogue with your children, really listening to what their hopes and dreams are and how we as parents can partner with them and make it happen. With that being said, the financial aspect comes into play as well. As the children make their college list, this is also a time to begin to narrow your choices — once you do that you can begin your real dissection of the universities and colleges with visits (more than one) and investigating what it is about certain schools that keeps drawing you back. Your list will begin to narrow once again, and you will begin to see your best 3-2-1 schools.” Jan Marshall, Hammond

How did you set up a college tour visit?

“I recommend not going to visit colleges in the summer. It’s very hot, the campus is basically empty, and I don’t think that you actually receive a fair representation of campus life. I recommend staying overnight in a dorm, visiting at least one class and talking with the faculty and staff about programs. Take notes and use your camera phone because the visits can sometimes run together in your memory. One item for parents: Sit back and be quiet. Your son or daughter should be the one asking the questions. We were amazed by how many parents seemed to take over the process from their student.” Jacqueline Finklea, Heathwood Hall

“Check out each school’s website before visiting a school. Some have limited space for tours and information sessions and require reservations. Eating lunch with students, attending classes and researching particular professors in your area of interest are additional ways to get to know a school.” Sue Cate, A.C. Flora

“It is important for your children to spend time on the campus and maybe spend the night with a current student on that campus to experience the school before making a decision. Current students are a great resource. The best way to set up a tour is to contact the school’s visitors’ center. It is helpful for your children to attend some classes in the major that they are pursuing.” Margaret and Mark Barrow, Ben Lippen

Advice for Athletes?

“Athletes are contending with two admissions processes for each school – one with the coach and one with the admissions office. This adds extra complexity and possibly frustration to the experience. If your young athlete has a chance of playing at a Division I school, you may want to consider a postgraduate or ‘PG’ year to ensure that he or she attains a spot at his or her school of choice. We spent needless time and energy focusing on schools where we had the support of the coach, but not a dedicated ‘spot.’ Try to gauge the rapport of the admissions committee with the coaching staff at the beginning of the process to ensure that there are no surprises. Plus, know that support from the coaching staff can sometimes be a negative for the admissions committee of a school depending on the respective relationship the admissions office has with the coaching staff and/or the athletic department. Some schools are more flexible than others. Some, like Yale, have reduced the number of spots available for athletics, as part of an overarching change in their admission’s philosophy.” Laura Scharr-Bykowsky, Irmo High School


Freshman Year Timeline

Advice from College Guidance Counselors
Enroll in college preparatory classes.
Take challenging courses. Colleges are impressed with students who go above and beyond.
Develop good study habits and organization skills.
Get involved in extracurricular activities, to develop skills and show leadership and commitment.
Read daily. This habit will pay off when taking tests with timed reading sections, such as the SAT/ACT.
Volunteer in the community.
Build relationships with teachers.
Get to know the high school guidance counselors. Ask them for help with a four-year high school plan, with focus on career aspirations.
Cherise Jacobs, Irmo High School

Take advantage of career fairs or seek summer employment that offers exposure to a career interest.
Keep a record of extracurricular and volunteer activities.
Angela Daniel, Sandhills School

This year is one of the most important years of a student’s high school career because it’s hard later to recover from a low freshman year GPA. It sets the tone for the remaining years that follow.
Earn as many credits as possible during this year to ensure promotion to the next grade level.
Keicha Barnes, A.C. Flora


A Parent’s PerspectiveThis is the year to start off well with challenging course selections and good grades. Be careful not to take a class that you cannot handle. Also find an area that you are passionate about that you will be involved in for the next four years and take on a leadership role. Obey school rules during your high school years since you need a good reference from your guidance counselor. Start your school resume by writing down all your activities and accomplishments. You’ll need this information senior year.
Joy Wilczewski, Cardinal Newman

Sophomore Year Timeline
Advice from College Guidance Counselors
Get prepared for college admissions testing. Take the PSAT to get good practice for the SAT. Take the PLAN to get good practice for the ACT.
Read and study.
Continue to take challenging courses (e.g. Honors, AP, IB).
Start doing internet searches for appealing colleges.
Attend college fairs.
Job shadow a professional in a field of interest.
Cherise Jacobs, Irmo High School

Seriously research college options and requirements.
Visit college campuses at every opportunity, including family trips. If attending a college football game or other athletic event, make time to tour the campus. The more campuses a student visits, the more likely he or she is to get a “feel” for what’s will be right.
Angela Daniel, Sandhills School

Take opportunities to explore higher-level courses such as AP (Advanced Placement) and courses in which they can learn a skill or trade at a Career Center.
Become active in student government, clubs and organizations.
Prepare for the High School Assessment Program.
Keicha Barnes, A.C. Flora

Take courses that develop critical thinking, writing and analytical/problem solving skills.
Work hard to make the best grades possible.
Begin to focus effort and energy on one or two extra-curricular activities with an eye on pursuing a leadership role in the future.
René Bickley, Hammond

A Parent’s Perspective
Start looking at schools, keep up the grades and the challenging courses. Depending if you are a good test taker or not, you may want to start looking at the SAT and ACT tests and getting extra help.
Joy Wilczewski, Cardinal Newman

Junior Year Timeline
Advice from College Guidance Counselors

Take the PSAT in October, to qualify for National Merit Scholarships.
Attend an SAT/ACT workshop or take practice tests
Take the SAT/ACT during the spring semester.
Research colleges and narrow choices to between five and eight. Ask high school counselor for suggestions based on majors, scholarships, location, size, etc.
Get to know the admission criteria for the top schools. Understand requirements and work toward meeting them.
Job shadow a professional in a field of interest.
Cherise Jacobs, Irmo High School

Continue to increase the rigor of the curriculum.
Make the best grades ever.
Get to know teachers. Most colleges require teacher letters of recommendation, and it’s easier for faculty to speak on a student’s behalf if they’ve seen him or her at their best.
Volunteer for extracurricular leadership roles.
Reflect on what will make a good college match, and take time to research colleges based on a list of factors that is considered important.
Visit schools.
René Bickley, Hammond

Study hard and take challenging courses. Colleges will look at junior year grades first when applications are submitted in the fall of senior year.
Tour college campuses. Meet admissions personnel and sit in on classes. Prepare a list of questions before each visit.
Research financial aid options.
Angela Daniel, Sandhills School

Take career inventory assessments such as the ASVAB and use SCOIS to fine tune interests.
Ask teachers at the end of the junior year for letters of recommendation. This removes a great deal of pressure and can prevent delays in processing the application.
Keicha Barnes, A.C. Flora

From a Parent’s Perspective
Take the SAT and ACT in the fall and see which one you prefer. Research the schools that you like to find out their SAT/ACT score range for regular admission and for honors colleges. Visit colleges, talk to their students and work on your high school resume. I like to talk to parents who have children at different schools to learn about the school from their perspectives.
Joy Wilczewski, Cardinal Newman

Senior Year Timeline
Advice from College Guidance Counselors
Continue to increase rigor of curriculum.
Focus on academics. Colleges definitely look at senior year course load and academic engagement.
Get started on applications early.
René Bickley, Hammond

Take required tests again to possibly increase your scores.
Submit college applications with great care.
Apply for financial aid.
Continue to study hard. Colleges have been known to change their minds about accepting a student if final senior grades are inadequate.
Angela Daniel, Sandhills

Be prepared to complete and submit college application at the beginning of the senior year.
Many colleges offer weekends where students can visit, tour and participate in on-campus activities prior to applying to make sure that the college is a great fit for them.
Research and apply for state, school specific and general scholarships that can assist greatly in affording a college education.
Keicha Barnes, A.C. Flora

Fight Senioritis.
Visit college campuses as often as possible. Many schools allow students to miss a certain number of days for college visits. Revisit campuses that are appealing.
Stay involved in extracurricular activities and community service.
Continue to explore careers and job opportunities in those careers.
Pay close attention to deadlines for admissions, scholarships and housing.
Sit down with parents and solicit their input. Listen to their advice.
Line up people to write letters of recommendation. Give them advance notice.
Make sure transcripts, school profile, letters of recommendations are mailed to colleges by the deadlines.
Apply for financial aid as soon after Jan. 1 as possible.
Cherise Jacobs, Irmo High School

A Parent’s PerspectiveOrganization is the key. Have an accordion file for college information. A lot of information comes in the mail so try and keep track of everything. Write down deadlines on the calendar. SAT/ACT scores matter, send them to the colleges by their deadlines; sometimes it takes two weeks for the colleges to receive them. Proofread the application before you hit the send button.
Joy Wilczewski, Cardinal Newman


Cherise Jacobs:
• Hope Scholarship: Award Amount $ 2800 towards the cost of attendance during the 1st year only  (non-renewable)    3.0 GPA (not SAT/ACT requirement)   non-renewable
• Life Scholarship: Award Amount $ 5,000 per academic year.
• 3.0 GPA, 1100 SAT/24 ACT, or Rank in the top 30% of the graduating class.  Must meet 2 of the 3 criteria: .&nb

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