The families of aspiring high school seniors face a year of high anxiety in the high-stakes countdown to college admission. March, when the wait starts for replies, is the worst, school counselors say.
The countdown kicks off today with the opening of online applications to the California State University and the University of California systems. Modesto City Schools starts its hands-on application workshops for both this week.
"Things are so different. Even with parents who are college-educated, it's difficult. There are so many more hoops to go through," said Enochs High college counselor Jennifer Brogan.
Turlock Unified counselors are making the rounds and Ceres Unified's learning directors are working one on one with students to be sure all have the pieces in place to move on.
"What's your plan?" Ceres learning director Jennifer Duarte challenged a small group of Central Valley High seniors last week. Choices listed were job, junior college, four-year college, military service or hanging out at home. "And we're going to say no to sponging off your parents. So what is your plan?" she said.
Each student dutifully chose one of the first four. But Duarte said she saw lots of deer-in-the-headlights looks, even though she starts talking to students about graduation in their freshman year.
For some, it takes entering senior year to see how ignored assignments and bombed tests can shoot down their dreams.
"That doesn't kick in, unfortunately, until now," Duarte said. "There's a lot of overwhelmed faces." For those teens, military service or community college offer a fresh start, she said.
School counselors say about a quarter of Stanislaus County's high school graduates go on to a four-year college or university; about half enroll in community college. The rest join the military or pursue jobs or other options.
For Central Valley senior Gila Juarez, applying to college is just the next in a series of carefully plotted steps. Gila said she will be the first in her family to go to college and she's aiming for the University of the Pacific.
Being a first-generation applicant will help, but Gila also has high grades in all the right courses and strong test scores.
So does Enochs High senior Marika Rossetto. Marika sat in Brogan's office last week, mulling over her options.
In Marika's case, Brogan had the happy task of pointing out that she could go almost anywhere. The Enochs teen is active in clubs and leadership activities, works part time, competes on the cross-country team and volunteers at her church.
Still, Marika said she's worried she won't be accepted at her top choices, which include the University of California at Santa Barbara.
"I'll talk to somebody (about activities) and be, like, oh, shoot, I should have done this or that," Marika said.
Johansen High college counselor Lisa Lodi said such fears are common. "We see nerves all the time. A lot of times, it's the parents as much as the kids," Lodi said.
Parent nerves are especially acute this year, as fees climb and doors shut in California's public colleges because of state budget cuts. The fiscal crunch has sent many families looking out of state for schools.
Counselors tell students, whether looking close or far, public or private, to apply to several schools and for financial aid, then weigh all the options.
For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gives $88 million in undergraduate scholarships each year, and 90 percent of its students get aid. Fees of $41,000, minus an average grant of $30,000 in aid, means that MIT is potentially less expensive than a UC campus, where fees are $13,200.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339.
For those looking at very competitive schools, here is a sampling of admissions criteria:
OVERALL: Schools say they are looking for diversity, promise and purpose in students. They want high grades in core courses and meaningful essays.
SCORES: Target SAT scores total 2,000 and ACT scores top 29, but lower numbers are not dealbreakers. For comparison, the average SAT score in Stanislaus County in 2010-11 was 1,475 and the ACT score was 22.
GRADES: They look for students who challenge themselves by taking AP and honors courses, when available, and succeed.
ESSAYS: Critically important. Admissions folks said they read hundreds of these within a few weeks. They look for initiative and a sense of wider perspective. As Enochs High college counselor Jennifer Brogan put it: "They don't want just a walking SAT on their campus. Are you going to contribute to our world, our community?"
LETTERS: Letters of recommendation should include one each from a counselor and a recent teacher in a core subject.
EARLY IN: Some schools offer a fall admissions ruling. "Early decision" means the student is committing to go there if accepted. "Early action" is nonbinding.
KEEP CHECKING: Every campus has its own demands and deadlines, so students should check their application sites weekly for e-mailed instructions, said Johansen counselor Lisa Lodi. "They're getting so many qualified candidates, that's one way to weed them out. You can't follow directions, you're out," Lodi said.
COMMUNITY COLLEGE: Counselors recommend students apply now to take a first course in the spring semester, while still in high school. By taking a course in spring and summer, students get to go to the front of the fall registration line and have a better chance of getting the courses they need, said Ceres learning director Kristen Cole.
DEPOSIT REQUIRED: California State University, Stanislaus, has implemented a $200 deposit, due May 1, showing intent to register after admittance.
ON THE NET:
Finding information on colleges and scholarships is free on the Web:
All California colleges: www.californiacolleges.edu
University of California system: www.universityofcalifornia.edu/students/welcome.html
California State University system: www.csumentor.edu
California State University poster, English and Spanish: http://bit.ly/QshEJd
California Community Colleges: www.cccapply.org
California State University system: www.csumentor.edu/AdmissionApp
University of California system: admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/how-to-apply/apply-online/index.htm
Modesto Junior College: www.mjc.edu/prospective/getting_started/application/ index.html
Common App, used by many private schools: www.commonapp.org/CommonApp/default.aspx