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College Bound

With planning, juniors can get a jump on college search

Jaime Morgan gave prospective students and their families a tour of the Tufts University campus.

Colm O’Molloy for the Boston Globe

Jaime Morgan gave prospective students and their families a tour of the Tufts University campus.

It’s second semester of junior year for Maribeth Mason of Kingston, and that means the college search is in full swing.

The 16-year-old student at Sacred Heart High School is searching for schools, visiting campuses, and attending college fairs.

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“I’m starting to look at colleges and see what I want to do with my career,’’ said Mason, who looked at a few schools during February vacation and will be back on the road in April. “I’m easing into it but I feel like it could get overwhelming soon.’’

While many high school seniors are anxiously awaiting word from their top college picks, juniors and their parents are also entering a critical period in the college search process.

Counselors and college admissions officials say now is the time for juniors to be starting their list, visiting schools, prepping for and taking tests such as the SAT and ACT, identifying teachers for recommendations, and thinking about an essay topic — all while still hitting the books.

“It’s the last year that will be on the transcript that’s sent out to colleges, so it’s really important to keep the grades up and have the best shining year of high school,’’ said Kerran Goff, a guidance counselor at Pembroke High School. “It’s their last opportunity to get their GPA up.’’

Many high schools hold evening events for juniors and their parents to give an overview of the college search process, with experts to help answer frequently asked questions.

Pembroke, for example, recently had a junior parents’ night with admissions officials from Bridgewater State University and Boston College so they could get perspectives from both a public and private school, Goff said.

Up next for students is researching potential careers and putting together a list of schools.

“This is a big task,’’ Goff said. “You really need to get out there.’’

Julie Bosworth, whose daughter, Caroline, is a junior at Pembroke High, said there is no such thing as getting started too early.

Bosworth went through the process last year with her son, who is now a senior, and quickly learned that they should have started sooner. With early action and early decision deadlines in November, students need to get started in their junior year, she said.

“You really need to be writing your essay before you leave school in June,’’ Bosworth said. “If you’re waiting until September, it’s too late.’’

Bosworth said Caroline has already starting putting a list of schools together and is registered for the SAT and ACT. They visited schools in February and plan to see several more in April.

“To me, there is no such thing as too early,’’ she said. “It makes you that much more prepared. It’s a lot more fun when you’re not under the gun.’’

Goff said one of the best ways to get more information about schools is to attend college fairs and take tours. She said April vacation is the perfect time to visit.

“It’s so important to get out there while the colleges are in session,’’ Goff said. “So many wait until summer, but you aren’t going to get a true picture.’’

Kerri Johnston, associate dean of enrollment/undergraduate director of admissions at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, agreed that campus tours are a critical part of the search process. She said juniors can talk to current college students, see dorms, and tour the facilities.

“It gives students an opportunity to see firsthand what a college has to offer,’’ Johnston said. “Once you step foot on a campus, you get a feel of the campus and culture.’’

Johnston said that even if students don’t think they’d like a large school, they should still visit one just to be sure. She said students should visit schools large and small, near and far, urban and rural, public and private.

“It’s important to look at all types of schools,’’ she said. “They could be pleasantly surprised.’’

She also urged students not to worry if they don’t know where their careers are headed. If students don’t have a good idea about what to study, they should choose a school that has more than one major of interest so if they choose to switch, they don’t have to transfer.

“It’s OK to change your major and it’s actually rather common,’’ she said.

And while it can be a stressful time for students and their parents, Johnston said it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. In fact, with some planning, the process can be fun.

“This is an exciting time in their lives and if they are organized, it can be a fun and joyful process for the family,’’ Johnston said. “It doesn’t have to be so stressful if they take it step by step. There is a school out there for everyone.’’

Jennifer Fenn Lefferts can be reached at jflefferts@yahoo.com.

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