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It's crunch time for Class of 2008

The moment of truth has arrived for college-bound seniors to choose a college, apply and seek financing for their next few years of education.

"The teachers and counselors started talking about college when we were freshmen," said Meghan Ferguson, New Richmond High School senior. "But it didn't really hit me that I had to actually do something about it until I took my ACTs in my junior year. That's when it became real to me."

"Everyone knows it's coming," said Paula Gretzlock, NRHS guidance counselor. "You plan for it, you think about it from middle school on."

By talking about college early, counselors and teachers hope to alleviate some of the stress that goes along with this major life transition.

"We don't want kids to stress out," Gretzlock said. "We want them to be thinking about 'what would be a good match for me' 'what's a good place to start now, knowing it's OK to change my mind later.'"

As instructed by school counselors, Meghan began applying to colleges and for scholarships in the fall 2007. She said she will be glad when it's over.

"It's an overwhelming process," Meghan said. "I'm thankful I started looking at colleges in the summer of my junior year to get a jump on it."

Even with an early start on the process, Meghan admitted she still got stressed out applying for schools and scholarships.

"It'll be worth it though if I get some good scholarships," she said.

"Money should not stop anyone from going to college," Gretzlock declared. "There is a lot of scholarship money out there that goes unclaimed. Right now we have more than 50 scholarship opportunities on the school bulletin board that are relatively local and accessible."

Meghan's advice to upcoming juniors and seniors is to "get your college applications out early so you can focus on scholarships."

For Meghan's mom, High School teacher Jessica Ferguson, the stress of the college process has been knowing that her daughter has to do it all on her own.

"Watching her go through the stress has been hard for me," Jessica said. "She has to take all the tests and fill out all the applications. I'm a teacher so I'm well-connected in the school, but for parents who aren't it would be nerve-wracking not to know exactly where we should be in the process at any given time."

While Meghan's mom isn't quite ready to "let her daughter go," she knows Meghan is well-prepared for her next step.

As advised by school guidance counselors, Meghan took an ACT preparation course and studied for the exam. It paid off for her because she scored high on her ACT test.

Following good advice

Every year the guidance staff meets with seniors early in the school year to assess where they are in the collegiate process. Next year, the school intends to implement parent/student conferences with guidance counselors for juniors as well.

"Course selection in high school matters in a student's junior year," Gretzlock said. "Some classes are geared toward four-year colleges and other classes may be more geared toward technical schools."

Junior year is also a time to make some decisions, get registered for the ACT/SAT tests, visit with college representatives at the High School, attend college fairs, visit area colleges with the NRHS-arranged trip and pull together a resume.

Gretzlock stresses the importance of writing a resume during the junior year to include all activities in school, church, organizations, clubs and any awards received.

"With a resume all the information you need is right there whether you are applying to colleges, for scholarships, loans or grants," Gretzlock said. "It's a huge time-saver."

In the spring of jjunior year, Gretzlock said it's important to look at college choices in-depth. She cautions students "never to make a final choice on a college without visiting it first."

The summer between junior and senior year is critical, Gretzlock said. This time should include some family trips to colleges students are seriously considering.

Meghan found this helpful in her college search. She set the parameters for the type of college she wanted to attend during her junior year.

"Size of the college wasn't really a factor," Meghan said with a laugh. "Pretty much anywhere is going to be bigger than here."

She knew she wanted to be relatively close to home, and she wanted to be able to visualize herself feeling comfortable on the actual campus. Meghan also needed to consider scholarship money to help with tuition.

Armed with that knowledge, Meghan arranged for summer visits to colleges very early in the spring of her junior year.

Meghan's mom, Jessica, said her daughter is the organized one in the family, so she just let her do her thing.

"I reminded her now and then about things that needed to be done and kind of looked over her shoulder," Jessica said. "But she didn't need any prodding."

After visiting several colleges, Meghan applied to St. Cloud University, St. Benedict's and the University of Wisconsin - Madison.

Meghan has her sights set on Madison right now, but how much financial assistance and scholarship money she will receive from each school could tip the balance.

No stone unturned

Some magic dates to keep in mind are Sept. 15 and Jan. 1.

"Colleges generally begin accepting applications on Sept. 15," Gretzlock said. "It's a good idea to know which colleges you are interested in and apply to them by that date in your senior year."

College applications generally require letters of recommendation from teachers or others which need to be gathered before applying. These letters should be fairly generic so they can be used for more than one application and possibly for scholarship applications.

Once college applications are sent, it's time to search for scholarships.

Students and parents may begin filing for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Jan. 1. Income taxes do not have to be filed before completing the FAFSA, but year-end income information from employers is required to complete the form.

"The FAFSA is an incredible, awesome thing," Gretzlock said. "But it can be confusing and intimidating."

Wisconsin Indianhead Technical College (WITC) in New Richmond hosts annual sessions to explain the FAFSA to parents and students. They also host a College Goal Sunday, which was held Feb. 10 this year to allow parents to ask specific questions and receive guidance.

Results of the FAFSA indicate how much federal assistance a student is entitled to and includes grants, scholarships, work-study options and several types of student loans.

There are also scholarship opportunities posted on the bulletin board outside the guidance office, there are Web sites to search and Gretzlock recommends checking with any businesses or organizations a student or family may be associated with.

Gretzlock cautions students and parents who plan to rely solely on loans to research the type of loan before committing as there are a variety of loans that differ in interest rates and when they must be paid back. She also warns not to borrow more than you need because "the debt isn't going to go away."

"There are a lot of scholarships out there through organizations that are offered that have little or nothing to do with grades," Gretzlock said. "Some of them may be looking for community involvement or require an essay about their company."

Many of these scholarships are not awarded because students don't take the time to apply for them or find out about them.

Gretzlock said, "our hope is that every kid has every option available to them when they graduate."

With some planning and organization, the senior year of high school doesn't have to be all about the stress of college and scholarships, it can also be about enjoying all the "lasts" and looking forward to new "firsts."