Keep options open, college admissions officials advise

Editor’s Note: The first part in an occasional series about preparing for college in an increasingly competitive world.

By Joe Tash

For the uninitiated, the process of selecting and applying for colleges can be a daunting task, thanks to a bewildering number of options in higher education, including whether to attend a two- or four-year school, a large campus or a smaller, more intimate school, public or private, big city or rural.

With college costs continuing to rise, and budget cuts forcing colleges to tighten admissions, the competition is fierce, and missteps can mean a student loses the opportunity to attend the school of his or her choice.

Admissions officials and counselors at both the high school and college level urge students and parents to work together to come up with the best plan for the child’s education, and take advantage of advisers and online resources for support.

“It’s their high school counselor, that’s who they really need to connect with. By just setting up an appointment and discussing post-high school options, counselors will be able to answer all their questions. That’s the best resource kids and families have,” said Brennan Dean, head counselor for both Torrey Pines High School and the San Dieguito High School District.

The San Dieguito district serves Solana Beach, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Carmel Valley and Encinitas, and includes both middle and high schools. Among the district’s high schools are Torrey Pines, Canyon Crest Academy and La Costa Canyon.

San Dieguito is a feeder district for MiraCosta College, a community college with campuses in Encinitas and Oceanside, and falls within the service region of Cal State University San Marcos.

In 9th and 10th grade, Dean said, students should focus on taking classes that meet college requirements, and also getting involved in extra-curricular activities, such as sports or student government, “things that they can talk about in essays and on applications.”

By 11th grade, students should start forming the list of schools where they want to apply. Applications are due in the fall of senior year.

Dean said he advises students to start by thinking about the location and climate of where they want to go to school, whether they want to try life on the East Coast, or stay in the west. Do they want to go to a large school with a football team and lots of school spirit, or a smaller liberal arts school where students can get to know their teachers well?

Lise Flocken, faculty director of transfer services for MiraCosta College, said students should also consider such factors as whether they want to join a sorority or fraternity, be near an international airport, attend a school with a religious orientation, stay close to home, or spread their wings and study in a distant location.

She said students and parents should sit down together and discuss the entire range of options, taking into consideration what the students want and the family’s financial resources, as well as admission requirements for various schools.

“It’s a wonderful dialogue based on realities, wants, desires and admission criteria,” she said.

Carol McAllister, director of admissions and recruiting for Cal State University San Marcos, said she advises students, including her own children, to apply to their local school, even if their top choices are elsewhere.

“Always apply to your local school and spread out from there,” she said. That’s because schools in the California State University system give preference to local students, both as freshmen and as transfer students, she said. Students from outside the school’s local admission area face stricter admissions requirements, such as higher minimum grade point averages, McAllister said.

While opinions vary on how many applications students should submit, Dean suggests 12 applications are a good rule of thumb: four “safety” schools, four likely candidates and four “reaches,” or schools where students desire to go, but have lesser odds for success.

In deciding where to apply, students will also want to consider which schools offer the types of programs and majors they are interested in. But Dean said that shouldn’t be their top consideration, as many students don’t know what they want to study, even in 11th or 12th grade, and those who do often change their major later.

“It’s something we don’t hyper-focus on,” he said.

Another decision students and parents have to make is whether students should start at a four-year school, or begin their studies at a community college and then transfer to a university for their final two years.

The transfer option has a lot of advantages, said Flocken. She estimated that by going to a community college for two years, the typical student will save $70,000. “That’s huge,” she said.

Community colleges offer smaller class sizes, meaning students can receive more individual attention from instructors, and they also offer students the opportunity to explore different subjects and potential careers as they work to meet general education requirements before transferring to a four-year university.

Students also have a chance to mature while studying at a community college, she said.

The potential downside is that parents and children must be able to live together for two more years, and successfully redefine their relationship as the children become adults and pursue their college education.

One of the most common questions she gets from parents, said Flocken, is whether students can go through a two-year school such as MiraCosta and still gain admission to a top four-year school, or graduate school.

“The answer is yes,” she said, and pointed to her sons, who attended MiraCosta and went on to UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and law school. The Carmel Valley resident said she will also urge her daughter, a Torrey Pines High School student, to begin her college career at MiraCosta.

McAllister agreed that community college can be a good option, and noted that students who transfer to a Cal State San Marcos from a college within its service area, such as MiraCosta or Palomar, will have lower admission requirements than those who transfer from schools outside the area.

In California, general education courses are “articulated,” meaning a freshman English course at MiraCosta is equivalent to the same course at Cal State San Marcos, McAllister said. “The courses are equally good,” she said.

Admissions officials said students should also visit campuses they are interested in attending, and use websites that help them sort out college options. For example, all students enrolled in the San Dieguito High School District have access to Naviance, a website that provides information and guidance on college preparation and selection. Most colleges and universities also have online resources to assist prospective students.

Dean tells students to use a spreadsheet to keep track of application deadlines, passwords and other information needed to submit and follow up on applications.

“You don’t have to go through it alone. You have your counselor here to help you. If you have questions reach out,” he said. “And stay on top of the organization. The hardest part of the college application process is staying organized with dates and passwords.”

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