How to prepare for college
by Elsie Hodnett
Local educators say students should prepare for college and future careers years before they become seniors in high school.

“As educators, we know that most future careers are not even created yet, and many future workers will change career paths several times,” said Karen Culver, counseling coordinator for Talladega County schools.

Culver said with a rapidly changing economy, opportunities for a person to enter a job and remain in that position until retirement are disappearing.

“It is up to parents and schools to prepare students for varied roles,” she said.

Culver said in Talladega County, schools are working hard to prepare students with college and career-ready skills by teaching skills such as communication, collaboration, financial literacy and computer literacy, along with basic academics.

“This is being accomplished primarily through the use of Project-Based Learning, which requires students to solve real-world problems while working with others inside—and sometimes outside—of their classroom,” she said. “Students are also being trained with principles such as goal setting, work ethic and mutual respect for others through leadership models in all elementary schools and most high schools.”

Cynthia Pruitt, senior counselor at Pell City High School said while their goal is to educate students, it is equally important to prepare students for postsecondary education and the decisions that come with that choice.

“Each year we educate and calculate all students’ grade average, from grade levels 4-8 in Pell City schools,” she said. “This allows each student the opportunity to understand the importance of grades earned and how this alone can affect athletic eligibility and college acceptance. If there is nothing else that younger students in the state of Alabama know about college, they all know the rivalry of the University of Alabama and Auburn University football. So it is easy to relate that, based on their grades, they may or may not be accepted into their favorite school. This understanding alone seems to, at the very least, encourage students to excel in academics.”

Pruitt said with that prior knowledge, those students can begin their freshman year understanding the importance of academic excellence.

“As freshmen, the grade point averages are calculated frequently, but at this point the introduction of career, interest and values inventories are completed,” she said. “Programs offered by the state of Alabama are utilized to compile this data and start students on a path to their future.”

Pruitt said throughout the students’ freshman, sophomore and junior years, the data is revisited.

“With these inventory results, the program allows students to explore various careers and the education requirements to obtain a job in their field of choice,” she said.

Pruitt said as students move towards their junior year, they are encouraged to begin taking college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT.

“Our students are informed of various studying opportunities that would benefit them and the score they achieve,” she said. “These scores and the education requirements for their career of choice, learned from previous inventory results, allow students to start exploring colleges that best fit into their plan.”

Pruitt said at the end of their junior year, the students are given a timeline of what should begin to happen in July prior to their senior year.

“One of the most beneficial suggestions is that they begin visiting the colleges they are considering,” she said. “Research suggests that if a campus does not feel like ‘home,’ a student will eventually return ‘home.’”

Culver said students and parents should work together to make the best choice for a college.

“It is very important for students and parents to begin researching colleges and career paths as students enter high school,” she said. “There are several factors that should be considered when making these decisions.”

Culver said students should consider what they have a desire to do as a future profession.

“I think this begins with family discussions and advice that parents give their children as they notice strengths that children have,” she said. “Schools help with this by exposing the students to various careers through Career Day activities, guest speakers, field trips and similar activities. This begins in elementary schools as well.”

Culver said school counselors also share websites that students can use to research career paths.

“Students should consider the cost of the college or university,” she said. “Although a student may apply and be accepted to a particular university, sometimes that is not always an option financially—especially if scholarships are not available. Many students may choose to attend a local community college for part of their college career, which has been a popular choice for many of our students. Dual enrollment also helps many of our students earn college credit while they are still in high school. This is an option that we hope to expand into technical career training as well. Those ideas are being explored.”

Culver said the student’s academic history is another major factor to consider.

“Students will need high grade point averages and scores on college entrance exams to be offered scholarships,” she said. “Many universities also look for well-rounded students who participate in community activities and service activities.”

Culver said counselors work with students as they enter high school to make academic choices appropriate for the student.

“Many students may not have a desire or funding to attend college,” she said. “Therefore, they will be seeking entry into the world of work. Counselors also talk with those students to make sure they graduate high school with solid skills for the work force. Future possibilities for career training while students are in high school is a goal of Talladega County. We are excited about the opportunities that will provide for students.”

Culver said if students plan to attend college, it is critical for them to begin preparing for the application process as they enter high school.

“Counselors plan with each student as they enter high school,” she said. “College entrance exams such as the ACT will be taken by everyone leaving high school in the near future. However, students must continue to work hard for the best scores to compete for scholarships. They also need to research what colleges require for entrance. They can no longer wait until their senior year before making these important decisions.”

Pruitt said as seniors, students who plan to attend a four-year college should begin college applications in July of the summer prior to their senior year.

“At Pell City High School, the seniors are asked to apply to five colleges, whether those are two-year or four-year colleges,” she said. “A team of counselors meet with seniors in the fall and complete at least one college application in order to offer a hands-on experience.”

Pruitt said once admission processes are completed, students should begin completing scholarship applications.

“It is imperative that students and/or their families have a college calendar,” she said. “For every school in which the student has an interest, there are deadlines for admissions, scholarships, housing, and registration. If those dates are recorded in the beginning, it is easier to make sure that no opportunity is missed.”

Pruitt said at the four-year college level, there are typically scholarship opportunities in the following areas: university admissions level, college level (education, business, engineering, etc.), and department level (secondary education, accounting, chemical engineering, etc.).

“Being aware of all deadlines is most beneficial,” she said. “If a student misses a deadline and has the requirements necessary for scholarship eligibility, he/she could miss out on thousands of dollars for school.”

Pruitt said the timeline is just as important for those students who choose a two-year college, because those colleges also have admissions and scholarship deadlines.

“Most two-year college deadlines fall in the second semester of a senior’s school year,” she said. “Often times, there are full two-year scholarship opportunities available to students who may have not had those opportunities at a four-year college.”

Pruitt said in January, seniors are told to complete the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). In February, a team of counselors meet and complete the FAFSA with each senior. The FAFSA allows students to receive grants and/or loans.

“At this point, all necessary paperwork is completed for a student to attend college,” she said. “Our seniors are then shown how to figure the cost of college, including tuition, housing, and meal plans. It is then that a student and his/her family must make the decision as to which school is the right choice.”

Pruitt said money always plays a vital role in the decision.

“To obtain a four-year degree, students have the choice to begin at a two-year institution and later transfer to a four-year institution or simply go directly to a four-year school,” she said. “This decision is one that should be based on money, maturity, and convenience.”

Pruitt said although not every student will go on to college, all Pell City High School students are aware of the steps to take when they are ready.

“Students may choose to join the military, obtain a job directly after high school, or take a gap year, but eventually they may want to attend college,” she said. “As a result of the college readiness preparation they have completed before graduating high school, they are fully aware of the steps to complete when they are ready.”

Contact Elsie Hodnett at ehodnett@dailyhome.com.

© 2013