The New College Try: How to Find the Right College For Your High School Student

Local educators share tips for helping your high school student find the right college.


High school is difficult enough. But for Delaware’s rising sophomores, juniors and seniors, thebiggest challenge is yet around the corner.

“College admissions is a business,” says Mary Maslar, college admissions counselor at The Charter School of Wilmington. “Understanding that up front really helps guide students. For example, not all schools are just data-mining machines: SATS, ACTS, grade point average. Consider what colleges lose each year and need to make up for: your musicians, your athletes, your leaders.” 

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At Tower Hill School in Wilmington, “We really believe that success starts building at an early age, and so our students have a foundation that starts in preschool,” says communications director Nancy Schuckert. “We have a motto here—many things done well. That doesn’t mean that everybody does everything well, but it means that kids give everything they have to whatever it is that they’re doing.”

The foundation at Tower Hill is fostered by collaboration between the lower, middle and upper schools, says director of college counseling Jill Lauck.

‘‘I think the younger kids learn a lot just by watching the older students go off and be successful,” she says. “And when [all the students] get together, and work on projects together, we have a student body that’s already being asked to take care of each other in good ways. And so they leave here heading into college knowing how to be good, active, engaged members of a community because every day we ask them to be.” 

Maslar, whose office is decked out in college pennants from Duke to the University of Chicago and every school in between, begins seeing Charter students as early as freshman year to help them navigate the admissions process.

“When we sit down one-on-one our first time, the first thing we’re going to look at is academics and curriculum,” she says. “That’s the basis. I’ll pull up the transcript because I want them to see what the picture is going to look like to college admissions: Is there anything about this transcript that needs explaining that wouldn’t naturally be explained?” 

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Maslar’s most important piece of advice for students looking to get into the best college possible is to stretch yourself to your academic limit.

“But within reason,” she warns. “That means you have a life, you’re getting seven hours of sleep at least, and also you develop your full potential non-academically. Where is that taking you? You cannot control, for example, that a school has too many girls that have applied in the humanities, but you can control achieving your best potential.”

For Charter students, a lot of that potential is reached in math and sciences. As the No. 5 ranked Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) high school in the nation in 2012, “We have a lot of specialist students in those fields,” Maslar says. 

Regardless of grade level, Lauck tells Tower Hill students to do one thing: “Continue to work hard,” she says. “I think the biggest building block in this process for any student looking to enter a four-year university is not only keeping up their grades, but staying engaged in their learning.”

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Rising sophomores should take the time to process how they’re charting, curriculum-wise.

“They should feel that they are in the right courses,” Maslar says. “If they’re doing the best they can, they at least should be able to get a B. But I’m also asking them, what takes up your time? And I don’t want to hear, ‘Facebook.’ Who are you? Who do you want to be? Who do you not want to be?” Finding the answers to questions like these, Maslar says, is an important step toward ensuring students are well-matched with the college they eventually attend. 

“A catch phrase in admissions right now is ‘passion,’” says Lauck. “It’s one that’s been around, but colleges really want kids who are passionate about those couple of things they do really well. So for some of our kids, they will be specialists; and for some of them, they will be good all-arounders, and I’m always telling the kids throughout upper school, choose the two or three things that you love best, and rise to the level of leadership. So if you start writing for the student newspaper as a sophomore, perhaps you’re a section editor your junior year, and by senior year, you’re taking on the editor-in-chief role. Nurture those passions.” 

While Lauck says it’s important for sophomores to just keep their heads down and work, it’s also OK to move around a little.

With help from  college counselor Jill Lauck,  Tower Hill students have options.  “You’ll get where you’re supposed to be,” she says. Photo courtesy OF Tower Hill School“I encourage them to do that, to try new things,” she says. The summer of sophomore year is a perfect time to participate in constructive non-academic activities.

“We have a great legacy of students going on to interesting summer camps,” she says. “Music, art, theater.”

While students are participating in culture-enriching programming, pencils shouldn’t be far from reach.

“This is the time to start developing your writing and really start to care about it,” Lauck says. “One of the things that many studies have shown us is that students who are good writers turn into adults who are good writers, which turns into a much more successful career. Care about the level and quality of research you do. Make sure that becomes a life-long habit.”

It’s also the time for students to begin sitting for standardized testing, like the PSAT.

“The whole idea is if you expose students early to what is required, they get over the anxiety and get a baseline understanding of the testing,” says Maslar.

This is also the time to bring mom and dad into the mix, she suggests, to begin the conversations about exactly how much it’s going to cost. “If I have parents here, I will look at them and say, ‘Where does the dollar play?’ It helps me help them.” 

Thanks to federal law under the Obama administration, all schools are now required to post net-price calculators on their websites. “Click around to different sites and use them,” Maslar says. She also urges sophomores to stop in and speak with either their guidance counselor or college placement counselor.

“It can be overwhelming,” she says. “Sometimes students feel too anxious to come in because they think, ‘Well, I don’t
really know anything about any of this’ and they get so nervous. We are not here to judge. We’re here to help.”

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Junior year is an excellent opportunity to be visiting campuses, Maslar says, in search of the campus identity that’s the right fit for each student.

“Even things like, for example, an enclosed campus versus a city campus are important considerations to make. Perhaps a student really wanted to go to NYU because it’s NYU, but upon being out on campus, they realize it’s not the right fit for them,” she says. 

“I tell students if you’re visiting grandma in Michigan this summer, check out the University of Michigan. Check out Michigan State. Go to Kalamazoo. These are three totally different feels,” Lauck says. “Where do you feel most at home? What kinds of friends do you most want to have? I think that’s what the college process is about: Finding where you’re most comfortable in life, and which of those comforts you will bring with you to college, to engage not only as a student but in a much larger community that thrives on ideas and actions and not just on classroom experience.”

It’s also the time to find out what a student is most interested in: the personality of the school or a specialization.

“Some kids just want to go to the University of Delaware, and that is just fantastic,” Maslar says. “But as a charter school for math and science, it doesn’t surprise me when kids come in here to find programs in that arena, not necessarily a school in general.”

She suggests that juniors show real interest to a school. “Go to college fairs,” she says. “Fill out the index cards for information. If you visit a campus, register and sign in. Did a college rep visit our school? We’re really great about getting people in here. And I travel to many universities to forge those connections. Students should get face time. Your name starts to be remembered. Schools see, ‘Oh, she was really interested in us.’” 

All Charter juniors also sit down with Peter Van Buskirk for his presentation of “The Admissions Game.”

“This programming really breaks down the business of admissions to students,” Maslar says. “They get to learn about selectivity, look at actual applications, and hear one of the most renowned voices in admissions talk to them about the process.”

Of course, perhaps the most critical part of junior year is standardized testing. “Students will have the SATs or ACTs junior year,” Lauck says. “Some students will start prepping the summer before with a tutor or teacher. Those things seem to have taken off on their own in a lot of ways, but we also provide a good structure for that in the curriculum.”

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“Fall is crazy busy around here with seniors as they’re starting to get their applications out,” Lauck says. “So September through November is really focused on seniors.”

Mistakes that rising seniors can make is not having a well-rounded list of schools they are serious about. “Even this far in the game, some of them still just need a little bit of extra time to figure out where they want to apply,” Lauck says. “Do they want to stay far from home? Do they want to be closer? So they’re still cultivating their list to include a range of schools. Part of creating that list is to separate yourself from your peers and what they’re excited about. It’s hard not to be influenced—we all are at every age—but it’s important to think of this as being entirely your own experience, something you get to do differently than everyone you’ve been at school with for 15 years.”

“It is now up to them,” Maslar says. “Seniors need to have done their homework over the summer. We’re asking those going to schools with a specialized interest to really be delving into those programs.”

It’s also the time for students to be drafting essays. “They’ve had a number of weeks off,” she says. “I’m going to ask, ‘What did you do?’ The closest summer to applying to colleges is the most important.”

Students should seek internships, if applicable, at schools they are interested in. Masler advises students to visit, a website that offers The Common Application, a fillable PDF application used by about 500 schools.

“Look at the essay questions on the common app and really start thinking about it,” she says. “Once you enter senior year, you are hit with course work, graduation requirements, sports … if all this causes you to rush off an essay, it’s going to look just that way. Students should have been pacing themselves to this point.” 

And ready or not, Lauck warns, “Deadlines are backing up much, much earlier. For example, public universities in Georgia are now overwhelmingly using Oct. 15 deadlines, so Georgia is asking for stuff immediately. And then [a deadline of] Nov. 1 comes shortly after that.

“They have to be ready to start senior year with as much in hand as possible and that includes just writing down big ideas. Come see me in August before school starts and let’s really try to develop your [writing] voice in a way that is still true to you and the story you want to tell.”

That story, for students at both schools matriculating into four-year schools, is one of success. “I think that rather than looking at [the college process] from the standpoint of being a fearful experience, students should look at it from the standpoint of just the excitement,” Schuckert says. “It’s incredible to see how they thrive in their new environments, and a positive perspective really makes that work.” 

Says Lauck, “The most important thing to remember is there are simply no guarantees. This is not college admissions of 50 years ago, it’s not even college admissions of 20 years ago. Keep an open mind—don’t spend time dwelling on what you can’t have. There are so many wonderful opportunities either 3,000 miles away or 20 minutes down the road. If you’ve done your job, you’ll get where you’re supposed to be.”  

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