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Planning Ahead for Effective College Application Events

By: Lisa King, director, American College Application Campaign

Summer may be lingering, but seasoned counselors and educators know it’s already time to plan for the fall. Each year, ACT’s American College Application Campaign (ACAC) works with nearly every state and the District of Columbia to host college application events in high schools and community organizations. We then have the privilege of announcing our annual School of Excellence awards, which honor exemplary schools from across the country for their success in helping to increase the number of first-generation college students and students from low-income families pursuing a college degree or other higher education credential.

With application season fast approaching, these award winners graciously relayed success stories and lessons learned to help their peers reach even more students. The winning schools and application campaigns agreed: Starting well before the college application season begins allows for more thoughtful planning and organized outreach – including beneficial collaborations.

“Don’t reinvent the wheel; glean information from other counselors,” advises Shelly Updegrave, school counselor at Ravenswood High School in Ravenswood, West Virginia.

In fact, one of the most important things that educators helping students apply to college can do is to team up with partners to improve the reach of their programs. That includes everyone from staff and administrators at their own school, to counselors and staff from other schools throughout their county and state, to community partners such as colleges, nonprofit organizations, and local businesses.

Ms. Schreiner, college and career specialist, and Ms. Hansen, college and career education support professional, kick off College Knowledge Month during lunchtime in October. Students played Bingo and College Mascot Match, and attended sessions in the Career Resource Center to win college gear and other prizes. Credit: Minnesota Goes to College

Several School of Excellence winners brought admissions and financial aid staff and even professors from nearby colleges into their events. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, admissions representatives from the area attended application events at Booker T. Washington High School to support students with the application process, and also provided giveaways including T-shirts, water bottles, and stickers.

“Our college rep partners helped make it fun, which made the whole process less intimidating for the students,” said Jennifer Sack, school counselor at Booker T. Washington.

Sol C. Johnson High School students Cameron Montgomery, Allanah Hall, and Trinity Roberts received on-the-spot acceptances to Albany State University. Credit: Georgia Apply to College

While securing outside support helps schools to reach more students as well as build awareness of counseling programs, it’s critical to ensure that internal teams are working together effectively, too.
“Without the assistance from our school administration, guidance staff, and community partners, our event would not have been as successful as it has been,” said Effie James Jr., site director of GEAR UP Mansfield at Mansfield Senior High School in Mansfield, Ohio.

Schools that are strategic in not only how but also when they provide application support are particularly likely to see stronger results among students who may not know all their options after high school. 

“I am most proud that we were able to incorporate all types of postsecondary options to appeal to a wider variety of students,” said Allison Swann, career coach at Pocahontas High School in Pocahontas, Arkansas.

Working on applications together during the fall alleviates the end-of-year time crunch for students by leaving them plenty of time to complete other steps in the process, including financial aid and scholarship applications. Through this strategy, counselors saw to it that every senior at Albuquerque School of Excellence in Albuquerque, New Mexico, applied to at least one four-year college or university. 

“Often, seniors are a bit complacent and hesitant to begin taking those steps,” said Aubree Boivin, college and career counselor at the high school. “For once, they are not procrastinating the process and putting it off until the last minute.”

Emphasizing activities in the fall also gives counselors more time to find students who still need extra support. Leigh Ann Stanford, professional school counselor at Nettleton High School in Nettleton, Mississippi, is especially proud of how staff supported students in applying to more than one institution, including a community college, to ensure they have options if life circumstances change. 

“While they may not plan to do this,” she said, “they very well could change their mind in the middle of July.”

Beloved counselor Tasha Dykes with Gaby Asuako, a senior who just finished her application and will attend Old Dominion University. Credit: Virginia College Application Week

Whatever postsecondary pathway students choose to take, send them off with confidence by recognizing their achievements. As you plan for the fall, mark your calendar for ACAC’s annual #WhyApply Day social media campaign happening on Sept. 22, when we will celebrate the nearly 300,000 students who will participate in college application events this year. 

For additional insights, join our Aug. 29 webinar where two School of Excellence winners will share their most effective strategies from last year’s application season. Register here.