Start of senior year begins the big push for college planning for many students

Written by Mary Beth Peabody

For most rising high school seniors, the start of the new school year is synonymous with one word. College.

All South Jersey Catholic Schools have dedicated resources to help students navigate the college application process. To varying degrees, the conversation starts in ninth grade. And it works, because every year 96% or more graduates begin their journey in higher education — well above state and national averages.

South Jersey Catholic School graduates find financial resources as well. The most recent graduating class received more than $200 million in scholarship offers.

Students meet individually with college admissions. Pictured above, student Haley Mylotte meets with James Jackson from Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia at Camden Catholic High School during the school’s recent college planning boot camp.

Camden Catholic High School (Cherry Hill) just wrapped up its college planning summer boot camp. With morning, afternoon and evening options, 70 students — more than a third of the incoming senior class — chose to participate. Over four days they took on the role of admissions representative, worked on the common application, created detailed resumes on Naviance (an online college planning tool and database), drafted essays and met one-on-one for feedback with admissions representatives from 10 colleges.

When asked mid-week why they attended, student responses included, “Help with the essay.” “To get a plan you can follow.” “[The process] is overwhelming.”

They agreed the course was helping on all fronts.

Counselors Nicole Barry and Maureen Sullivan, who created the annual boot camp, had students work in groups to evaluate, rank and recommend decision outcomes for four applicants to a fictitious university. “By pretending to work for a college, they get to understand all that goes into acceptance decisions,” said Sullivan.

Barry said the boot camp places a lot of emphasis on the college essay. “An admissions representative once told me she’d never get out of her chair to tell a coworker, ‘Wow, you should see the SAT scores I just looked at,’ but she will jump up to say, ‘You won’t believe the essay I just read,’” said Barry.

Barry and Sullivan work with students throughout junior year to help them get organized. Students research schools and decide where they want to apply, line up teachers for recommendations and, ideally, have two rounds of testing behind them by the time they break for summer. Boot camp gives them a structured way to complete the application and essay.

“When they come back [for senior year] all that’s left to do is hit ‘send,’” said Barry.

Paul VI High School in Haddonfield also offered a summer workshop, where rising seniors worked on the common application and essay and learned more about the financial aid process. A three-week SAT preparation course was held as well.

Students at PVI attend guidance classes during the school day in their sophomore, junior and senior years, which gives them focused time to research schools and work on applications. PVI recently provided all students with a bulb Digital Portfolios account, so they can organize academic and extracurricular profiles in a unique and creative way to share with colleges.

Counselor Valerie Sheets begins to offer practical advice about college to ninth graders at Holy Spirit High School in Absecon.

“Students often don’t realize that every grade, every absence, and every activity counts,” she said. “They are often shocked to find out during the college application season that those Ds they got in freshman year really do hurt them. … They are competing for college admission not only with their school peers, but also with the tens of thousands of other seniors across the nation.”

Sheets, who also runs three summer application workshops, remains the voice of reason through the final decision. She asks students and parents to consider factors such as affordability and return on investment, campus safety, activities, clubs and organizations, job placement and career counseling services, work opportunities and dining services.

At Saint Joseph High School in Hammonton, guidance director Louise Fourney values her ability to spend one-on-one time with every student. “At the end of their junior year, I go over the process with them individually. When the seniors return in September, I go through the instructions as a group. I meet with them individually [again] to make sure they are on task,” said Fourney.

Most students are challenged by the thought of “where to start” when it comes to creating and narrowing a list of colleges to visit, so the high schools sponsor fairs that enable students to get a first look at several colleges.

As many as 50 colleges and universities make the trip to Wildwood to meet students from Wildwood Catholic High School.

As daunting as it is to apply, finding the resources to pay for college can be paralyzing for students and parents. Every school has sessions for students and parents devoted to the financial aspects of college, particularly how to look for grants and scholarships, and how to complete the FAFSA financial aid application. Gloucester Catholic High School (Gloucester City) plans to host a  speaker on the topic and invite parents in the surrounding community.

While South Jersey Catholic high schools offer a rigorous, college preparatory curriculum, the schools recognize that not every student plans to continue with a formal education. School guidance counselors help some students find a path to military service, trade schools or the start of a working career.

No matter which path students choose, the guidance process supports South Jersey Catholic Schools’ vision: for students to become faith-filled adults who, guided by gospel values, shape our world with knowledge, integrity and compassion.

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