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Navigating the College Application Process

Navigating the college preparation, selection and application process can be intimidating for anyone. The choices may seem as difficult as they are consequential, and it's critical to make sure that no matter where in the process the potential applicant is, he or she is taking advantage of the resources available locally, nationally and online. There is a wealth of information out there on a wide range of subjects, from comparing the relative benefits of community colleges and four-year schools to applying for financial aid packages, grants and loans.

Rocky graduates high schoolRocky Otoo, 17, turns her tassel on her cap during her high school graduation from Bronx Preparatory Charter School in the Bronx, NY. Credit: Photo by Robert Caplin/Highbridge Pictures

"The process is complicated and challenging for every family, but especially for families in which college has been not part of the family tradition," says James Montoya, vice president of higher education relationship development at the College Board and a former dean of admission and financial aid at Stanford University. "The best advice is to find someone who can be a college advocate, such as a teacher, someone a student can go to and say, 'I need help.' For example, most immigrant parents are not familiar with financial aid as an option or procedures for obtaining it." Montoya suggests that a student find someone trustworthy, whether it's a teacher in school or someone in the community, who has attended college and gone through the entire process, and ask that person to be both a resource and an advocate every step of the way. "A student needs to be resourceful and find someone to serve as a resource," he says, "because there might not be someone in that student's family who has the information he or she needs about going to college, and not all high schools have college counselors. But anyone who's gone to college and understands its value really wants to be helpful." Montoya suggests that college admissions officers themselves are excellent resources. "Many admissions officers are first-generation college goers themselves, and they understand the challenges many high school students face when they're the first in their families to go to college."

Once a student has found an advocate, it's also important to consider all the options available, especially if paying for college is a concern. "A number of colleges and universities are rethinking what an affordable education means for families, given the significant economic shifts in our country over the last year," says Stephanie Balmer, vice president for enrollment and communications and dean of admissions at Dickinson College. "Although a four-year college or university may be attractive at first glance, a student may very well choose to begin his or her college career at a community college and transfer upon earning an associate's degree. In addition, some students may choose military service immediately following high school and enter college at a later date. The Post-9/11 G.I. Bill Yellow Ribbon Program provides students with significant subsidies that in many cases can cover full tuition at participating colleges and universities. There are over 700 colleges and universities participating in this program. Lastly, there is an increase in students choosing to take time immediately following high school before beginning college -- a 'gap' year of sorts. At Dickinson College, we are awarding students who commit to full-time work in an area of public service a $10,000 tuition credit for each year of full-time service. Non-traditional times call for new ways to deliver quality education, and most institutions are recognizing this with new ways to fund a college education."

Students considering the community college option should realize that they're far from alone. In fact, according to the American Association of Community Colleges, 46 percent of all U.S. undergraduates attend community colleges, and the average annual cost of tuition and fees is only $2,361 at a public community college, as opposed to $6,185 at a public four-year college. Moreover, 59 percent of new nurses and close to 80 percent of firefighters, law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians are educated or credentialed at community colleges. And a student who attends community college with plans to transfer to a four-year college will likely find a very welcoming reception.

"Many of the finest four-year universities in the nation take great pleasure in being able to attract community college students to their doors," says Montoya. "These students bring a wealth of experience. They have been successful at community colleges and bring diversity to the four-year institutions. And community college transfer students do as well or better than those students who were admitted to the college as freshmen."

Montoya also stresses that, regardless of which type of college a student chooses to attend, students who are new to the college process or unfamiliar with its intricacies because they're not from families with college backgrounds are extremely attractive to colleges and universities. "As a former dean of admissions, I think students of immigrant parents often have important stories to share in the admissions process," he says. "The experiences of immigrant students and first-generation college goers are extraordinarily valuable to the educational process. Their stories are valuable and valued."

For more ideas and resources for navigating college admissions, selection and financial aid options, check out the following sites:

College Board
This massive site, which is also available in Spanish, offers everything from a college planning guide and a college comparison database (including a wealth of resources on community colleges) to a scholarship search engine and college financing calculators. And, of course, there's lots of information about the SAT here, too.

Online scholarship search provider FastWeb offers access to a database with over 1.3 million scholarships worth over $3 billion and is designed to match students with scholarships that meet their needs. In addition, the site has content related to student life, as well as discussion boards and a job and internship database.

American Association of Community Colleges
This website features a community college finder that allows applicants to search by location, size and other attributes. In addition, the website offers a wealth of statistical information about the community college student population.

The League for Innovation in the Community College
While this website is primarily dedicated to providing materials for faculty and staff at community colleges, it also has a good selection of college-related links for students, as well as information on the art and writing competitions it sponsors that are open exclusively to community college students.

Lara Ewen is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY.