Eye on Education

College-going 101: Here’s what you need to know

Beyer High college counselor Teresa Pitts talks with seniors, from left, Pratima Gangupantula, Imuniquez Lyons and Cierra Douglas, in Modesto, Calif., on Aug. 26, 2016.
Beyer High college counselor Teresa Pitts talks with seniors, from left, Pratima Gangupantula, Imuniquez Lyons and Cierra Douglas, in Modesto, Calif., on Aug. 26, 2016. naustin@modbee.com

Getting into the elite universities takes top grades and boundless determination. But anybody willing to work can go to college.

By bypassing the famous faces and going with the friendly smiles of more accessible places, many find a better fit than the hypercompetitive world behind those ivy-laden walls. And for those who woke up late to the thought that their teen heyday would end, community colleges stand ready to reboot academic life.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for students. Admission is so complex,” said Beyer High’s Teresa Pitts. Pitts is a college counselor, part dreamcatcher, part no-nonsense coach, who guides students through planning and applying.

“Parents and students need to understand the process,” she stressed, “Knowledge is power.”

Modesto City Schools has a cadre of college counselors and pays for access to college guidance software for all its students. Few high schools in other districts have staff working solely on guiding students onward and upward, but much is now available online for free.

Parents and students need to understand the process. Knowledge is power.

Teresa Pitts, college counselor

Planning for college really starts with good habits formed in grade school. By junior high, parents need to particularly watch writing skills and math. Being placed in a lower math class limits how far students can go in high school.

“In middle school, you’re laying groundwork for study skills that will serve them well in high school and all the way to college,” said Angela Maria Garcia, executive director of college planning at the College Board.

She recommends setting goals for the school year; developing a shared school calendar with study goals, keeping track of tests and other school-centered activities. Setting a grade contract between student and parent is another idea. But keep an eye on the prize, she said, “You need to be celebrating success along the way.”

In high school, teens should buckle down for the best grades and start looking for interesting clubs, sports or artistic endeavors and good deeds they enjoy doing.

“Put some perspective around extracurricular activities,” Garcia said, “Try to identify interests first and find the right way to explore those interests. It’s really finding what they enjoy first and what’s going to spark them.”

At Beyer, Pitts tells her students much the same thing. It used to be all about having a dozen clubs to write down, she said, “Now what they want to see is passion. Commitment is the key – depth, more than breadth.”

Fun activities that also help others are important, Pitt said. “Community service – that’s a big part of scholarships – finding a passion and sticking to it. There are not things you can put in place at the last minute,” she said.

But many a teen plows through freshman and sophomore years focused on nothing past next week’s math test.

Put some perspective around extracurricular activities. Try to identify interests first and find the right way to explore those interests.

Angela Maria Garcia, the College Board

“Junior year, that’s a real turning point for most students, where they kick into high gear and start thinking about a plan for college,” Garcia said.

Her advice when turning to college planning at any stage: Get organized and take advantage of free online resources. The Khan Academy free math help site has expanded to offer SAT test prep through a partnership with the College Board, the company that started pre-college testing in 1899. It runs the Scholarship Aptitude Test, better known as the SAT, the merit-scholarship linked PSAT, and Advanced Placement exams for AP classes.

The College Board also has put free college resources online at bigfuture.collegeboard.org, including a college search engine, financial aid information and a planning guide.

Junior year is often when families take a trip to see potential campuses, but taking a side trip to a nearby college can be part of every vacation. Colleges generally offer free tours led by students. Call ahead to see when they are available.

Senior year is the year for applications and stressful months waiting for a reply. Online applications close Nov. 30 for fall 2017 at the the University of California system. Students rank their choices on a single UC application instead of applying to campuses separately. The California State University system will accept applications Oct. 1 to Nov. 30. It, too, has a single application.

Most private schools use the Common Application, which requires an essay called the personal statement. All college applications ask for high school transcripts, activities and most ask for SAT and/or ACT test scores. The UC application has “personal insight questions.” The CSU application does not have an essay component.

Key things to know about essays: Follow directions. Be concise. Showcase strengths, and most of all – proofread!

In his book, “Earning Admission: Real Strategies for Getting into Highly Selective Colleges,” Greg Kaplan adds that students need to show maturity and reflection in their essays. Writing about a red-letter experience needs to include how it changed and widened the student’s understanding of the world.

Kaplan also suggests creating an application theme, tying the topic of the essay to résumé highlights and career aspirations. Most will get a fast read by weary eyes and need to stand out as positive and, ideally, address a niche the school is looking to fill.

The essay allows students to showcase their individuality, Pitts said. “I’m happy to see they’re looking for the humanity, who the students are as a person. A lot of students have great grades, great test scores. When I’m working with them (on their applications), I want to make sure their voices are heard,” she said.

Take harder classes so you can get a chance to find out what you’re capable of.

Imuniquez Lyons, student

Beyer senior Imuniquez Lyons said he never thought of college until middle school. He realized then, Lyons said, “You have to go to college to do what you want.” He now has his eye on the University of Colorado and an astronomy or chemistry degree.

His advice to younger students: “Study and make sure to read a lot; it helps vocabulary. Take harder classes so you can get a chance to find out what you’re capable of.”

Classmate Pratima Gangupantula is aiming for med school. Her advice: “Don’t cultivate a habit of procrastination. That is my biggest challenge.” What she would tell middle schoolers – “Take school seriously and not blow it off.”

Volunteering at a local hospital let her see what her chosen field is like to work in, and helped her push past her shy side. “I learned how to be an effective leader. I learned how to talk to people,” Gangupantula said.

Cierra Douglas, also a Beyer senior, plans to apply to private Christian universities, looking toward an English degree and possibly missionary work.

Her advice to teens coming up: “Don’t overwork. Don’t try to take everything and overstress yourselves.”

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

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