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North Hills Monthly

College Countdown: Keeping High School Students on Track for Admission

Jul 31, 2017 08:30PM ● By Jennifer Monahan

Central Catholic graduates, photo by Roy Engelbrecht

PSAT, SAT and ACT tests. Application deadlines. GPAs. Campus visits. College essays. Financial aid. The considerations facing high school students as they prepare for post-secondary study are overwhelming, and it can be tough for parents to know how to help their children navigate these tricky waters. 

Having a plan and a timeline are a must. Here, three guidance counselors from prestigious local high schools share their insights about staying on track throughout the college preparation process. Keith Bryner is director of college counseling for The Ellis School and has worked in college admissions at Carnegie Mellon University and American University. Phil DiRenzo is director of counseling at Central Catholic High School and has experience in admissions at La Roche College. Lauren Lieberman is director of college counseling for Shady Side Academy and previously worked in admissions at the University of Chicago. 

Researching Schools

According to these experts, during the early years of high school, parents should follow their children’s lead about when to begin the college search process. “There is no wrong time to start,” Bryner said. 

Lieberman explained that college visits can be informal. “If you’re on vacation or at a wedding, go have lunch on a nearby campus or walk around a bit,” she said. Especially in ninth or 10th grade, students can get a feel for the campus without having to do a formal visit. Juniors and seniors should make a point of stopping by the admissions office, however. 

By the summer after junior year of high school, students should start to visit some schools. Day trips to nearby campuses or more comprehensive college trips are both effective in helping students determine what they like and dislike in a school.

DiRenzo advises high school juniors to attend the Pittsburgh National College Fair held annually in February at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. The event is free and brings together admissions counselors from over 250 colleges and universities to meet with students and parents.

“This is the biggest college fair in the region,” he said. “It’s a great time for families to launch the college search process.”

While DiRenzo said that Central Catholic students begin utilizing the school’s college and career readiness software in ninth grade, junior year is when most college-bound students encounter some of the typical benchmarks for college preparation. One major milestone is the PSAT.


Many schools offer the PSAT in 10th grade as a way of practicing for the real thing. The PSAT administered during the winter or spring of 11th grade is the official exam, making students eligible for National Merit scholarships and honors. The test is a fairly reliable predictor of SAT scores, Bryner said.

Depending on PSAT results, Bryner guides students toward one of three paths. Students with very strong PSAT scores might take the SAT during spring of 11th grade, while students who want to raise their scores might put off taking the SAT until the summer, allowing time to complete their junior year coursework and possibly do some test preparation. Students with scores well below their desired outcome typically delay the first SAT test until summer or even fall of senior year, allowing time for test preparation courses or tutoring.

Many students do test preparation between junior and senior year, Lieberman explained, because they find summer to be a time when they can better focus. The demands of classes and extracurricular commitments often make such attention difficult during the academic year.

In advising students about test preparation, Lieberman uses the analogy of getting physically fit. “Some people can have a training plan and do it on their own. Some people make better progress as part of an exercise class. Some people need a personal trainer,” she explained. The same principle applies to ACT or SAT test preparation, and the best approach varies depending on individual motivation and accountability.


For students seeking financial assistance, the summer after junior year is a great time to start researching potential merit scholarships. DiRenzo said and are two helpful resources to find available scholarships.

Lieberman suggested parents use the Net Price Calculator (a feature on virtually every college and university website) to help determine the real cost of attendance. She recommended that parents begin honest financial conversations with their children early so that students know what role family finances will play in college selection. “Students should know whether they should be considering in-state versus private schools, whether they might need to take out loans and what, if anything, parents will be able to contribute,” Lieberman explained.

The financial aid process (resulting in a package of grants, scholarships and/or loans available through a particular university or college) begins during October of students’ senior year, Bryner said. Most aid packages are now offered along with admission, providing clarity for families to determine the best financial fit.

college prep curriculum

Course selection during junior and senior year is another key component to stay on track for college admission. Lieberman said students should take the most challenging courses in which they can be successful, selecting classes in collaboration with teacher recommendations. 

“Parents especially can feel so much anxiety about classes, worrying that their children won’t be competitive for college,” Lieberman said. “Students should not forfeit the thing they love most—like the school play or a sport—just so they can really focus on a single class that they think will get them into college.” Admissions counselors consider everything in context, she added, so one single course or grade is unlikely to influence the student’s chance for admission.


During the fall of senior year, students should expect to spend about as much time on the college preparation process as they would on a regular academic course. Researching schools, filling out forms and writing essays take up some of that time, but Bryner also encourages students to make sure to dedicate what he termed “head time” to the process. “Think hard about what you are doing and about what you want,” he said. 

Lieberman said that self-reflection is often the most difficult piece of the equation, and the easiest part for students to skip. She suggested that students keep a journal, talk to their parents or find other ways to process their thoughts. She added that parents can assist by keeping up regular conversations and helping students consider questions like: What about high school have I loved? What am I passionate about? What about my group of friends—how do I replicate that in college? Or, if I haven’t been happy, how do I make a change?

She also suggested that students find adults they admire and ask them about their college and career journeys, as well as what steps they followed to achieve what they have, and what that might mean for their own choices about college.

Ultimately, Lieberman said, parents should encourage students to seek colleges or universities where they will thrive. Finding the best college is about finding the best fit for an individual student; a place where that person can be comfortable and take the next steps that will lead them toward adulthood.

College Checklist

Grades 9 & 10

 • If student expresses interest, begin informal visits to college campuses.

• Discuss college finances. What tuition can the family afford? How much will the student need to contribute through work, scholarships or loans?

• Consider taking a practice PSAT, if offered.

Grade 11

• Consider course selection in light of requirements for potential colleges.

• Attend Pittsburgh National College Fair in February.

• Take the PSAT.

• Check out the Net Price Calculator for schools of interest.

Summer after 11th grade

• Begin campus visits to potential universities.

• Prepare for the ACT and/or SAT exam.

• Research potential schools.

• Research potential scholarships.

Grade 12

• Consider course selection in light of requirements for potential colleges.

• Take the ACT and/or SAT exam.

• Complete college applications.

• Fill out financial aid forms (available October 1).

• Take time to reflect about what constitutes a good fit for the student.