It’s second semester of junior year for Maribeth Mason, and that means the college search is in full swing.
The 16-year-old student at Sacred Heart High School in her hometown of Kingston is researching schools, visiting campuses, and attending college fairs.
“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 during next month’s week off from classes. “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 entering a critical period in the college search process.
Counselors and college admissions officials say now is the time for juniors to be starting on their list of contenders, 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.
Many high schools host evening events for juniors and their parents to give an overview of the college search process with experts to help answer frequently asked questions.
Andover High School has held three sessions for parents, said Aixa de Kelley, the counseling department’s director. They focused on interpreting standardized test scores, admissions trends, and a general overview of the application process, de Kelly said.
“It’s a decision-making process and there is a lot of research involved,’’ she said. “It involves a lot of self-exploration and reflecting. The more informed students are, the better decisions they make.’’
Students have attended an in-school session with a college admissions panel, and will gather in small groups with counselors this month before meeting individually to start to develop an initial college list, de Kelley said.
“Ideally, we want them to have a real big college list and as they meet with counselors, they’ll start to narrow it down so when they come in senior year they have a list of eight to 10 schools,’’ she said.
De Kelley said while college may still seem like a long way off, juniors shouldn’t procrastinate. She said the earlier they get started, the more time they will have to make the right decision without feeling overwhelmed.
“It’s important to not do it all last-minute, but break it up into small pieces so it’s easier to understand,’’ she said. “My best advice is to start early in terms of the search process and explore what they are looking for in a school, and not base it on the name or where other kids are applying.’’
De Kelley said one of the last exercises counselors do with juniors is a college essay-writing workshop so they can work on a draft during the summer.
One of the reasons juniors need to get started now is because early action and early decision deadlines are in November, said Martha Savery, a spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Educational Financing Authority, which provides a wide range of college planning resources for families.
Students looking to meet those November deadlines won’t have time to get everything done if they start in the fall of their senior year, she said.
One of the best ways to get started is to visit as many schools as possible, Savery said.
“In Massachusetts, we have such a great opportunity,’’ she said. “Two hours away in any direction and you can hit any type of campus.’’
De Kelley said she also encourages students to visit as many schools as possible. She said some took tours last month but many will go during April vacation when it’s warm enough to walk all around campus.
Kerri Johnston, associate dean of enrollment and undergraduate director of admissions at University of Massachusetts Lowell, agreed that campus tours are a critical part of the search process. She said they allow juniors to talk with current 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.’’
She said 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, state and private.
“It’s important to look at all types of schools,’’ she said. “They could be pleasantly surprised.’’
Johnston also urged students not to worry if they don’t know where their career is 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. With some planning, she said, the process can even be enjoyable.
“This is an exciting time in their lives and if they are organized, it can be a fun and joyful process for the family,’’ she 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.