College prep 101
By Zenaida Serrano
Advertiser Staff Writer
As a high school sophomore, Angie Wong already had college on the brain. That's when she started considering her college options. As a junior, she continued her research, while preparing for and taking her PSAT. Now a 16-year-old senior at McKinley High, she's in the middle of applications, and she's grateful she got a head start.
"I started planning early because I wanted to know what (college prep) classes to take in high school and to see if I had to do any volunteer work, then get those out of the way," she said.
Angie had the right idea by starting early. College application season is here, and while seniors are consumed by the process, it's time for underclassmen — and their parents — to start getting ready for the next big step, college counselors say.
"It's important for all to understand that college planning begins much earlier than junior or senior year," said McKinley counselor Cynthia Kunimura. "From the time students enter high school as freshmen, a strong curriculum of college prep courses with good grades, involvement in extra-curricular activities and sports, as well as leadership positions in any of these activities are important."
The three key areas of preparation are academics, self-assessment (finding schools that fit students' ability and desires) and financial readiness. The first two matter for students. Parents should be aware of the third issue, said Todd Fleming, director of college counseling at Iolani School.
Taking on challenging classes and getting good grades count.
Fleming points out that colleges look at the student's record from the ninth grade onward.
"College admissions officers look for trends in grades — upward or downward — as well as what types of courses students are taking," he said. So students should take balanced course loads and seek challenges where appropriate.
EXPLORATION IS KEY
Iolani junior Brandon Ching, 17, is already checking out a variety of Mainland colleges, including his top choice, the University of Utah, which he toured last spring.
"You should explore what you want and what your parents want," Brandon said. "I think it comes down to what suits you best."
With more than 3,500 colleges and universities in the United States, students should find schools that fit their requirements, rather than alter themselves to fit the image of a specific school, Fleming suggested.
Some questions students can ask themselves: Do I want to stay in Hawai'i or go to the Mainland for college? Large, medium or small school? Public or private? Open curriculum or something more structured?
"The answers to all these questions take time to find, so the student that starts learning about schools now will be better able to make an informed decision later," Fleming said.
McKinley junior Judy Liang is also in the middle of the self-assessment process. Judy, 16, is considering Mainland and local colleges that specialize in interior design and culinary arts programs — her possible majors.
"It's important to start preparing early because you don't want to start freaking out at the last minute," Judy said. "It would be less stressful when it comes time to make a decision."
In addition to researching colleges, Judy is trying to stay on track by studying for the PSAT, preparing for a college tour of southern California colleges and maintaining her 3.0 cumulative GPA.
"When I visit the junior classrooms at McKinley, one of the first things I tell them is that this is the most important year," Kunimura said. "When their applications go in to the colleges in Fall of their senior year, the junior grades will be very important because senior grades will not be posted until possibly January or February."
Meanwhile, at this point in the school year seniors should be narrowing down their college choices and be aware of what is required on specific college applications.
"At this time of the year, I'm asking my college-bound seniors to make appointments with me so that we can go over their college options and make sure they're not falling behind in the application process," Kunimura said.
What's a parent to do?
Sara Wong, mother of Angie, the McKinley senior, is helping her daughter throughout the decision-making process, but is careful not to put extra pressure on her.
"She makes her own decisions, but she's very receptive to feedback," said Sara Wong, 44, a billing specialist. "We always talk openly about the pros and cons of these (schools)."
Kunimura advises parents to be there when their child wants to talk about colleges, but not to push too hard.
"I feel badly for the child who doesn't know how to tell their parents that they do not want to be a doctor, lawyer or pharmacist because they're afraid of disappointing them," Kunimura said.
Parents have a tough role in the college preparation process, Fleming said.
"They must support their students, but not do the work for them; they must engage their students in self assessment, but not tell them where to go; and they must allow their students to do most of this on their own now, while they are still able to help," he said.
If a parent does too much, the student may have a difficult time once they're on their own at college, Fleming said. It's better to have some stumbles along the way now, when a parent can still help pick them back up.
"Communication is the most important thing," Sara Wong said.
It's also crucial for parents and their children to have a conversation early on about the cost of education and how they plan to handle it.
Parents of high school teens should become familiar with how to apply for financial aid and some of the terminology, Fleming said.
If a student applies for financial aid, parents will have to fill out forms such as the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. The FAFSA may not be filed until Jan. 1 of senior year, but parents could start learning about some of the steps in the process now. (See box of Web sites on the cover.)
Discussing costs and how to pay for school may be stressful, so it's important to keep things in perspective, Fleming said.
"College is expensive, yes, but it is the most important investment you'll make," he said.
Reach Zenaida Serrano at email@example.com.