She’s only 15, but Andrea Labonte already has several colleges on her list and knows for sure which ones won’t make it on there.
The Nashoba Regional High School junior from Bolton started looking last year while her sister, now a senior, started the process, and she quickly learned she wants a small school close to home.
She came to that decision not by searching online or browsing through brochures, but by seeing schools in person.
“I don’t like the bigger schools and I was able to figure that out by looking around,’’ she said. “You have to go and look at a school to get a feel. You have to be able to sit in that environment and see if they are the type of people you want to be around. If you can’t picture yourself there, why would you go?’’
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 start making their lists 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.
“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 events for juniors and their parents to give an overview of the college search process with experts to help answer frequently asked questions.
At Hopkinton High School, for example, parents, and students could attend an evening of workshops offering advice about writing an essay, tips from a college admissions officer, or information about the military, and gap-year options.
“They need the information,’’ said Evan Bishop, the school’s principal. “This really is the time to sit down and think about post-secondary plans and how we can help them in the process.’’
In addition to the evening session, Hopkinton juniors will also take part in guidance sessions during the school day this spring to help them get started on the essay, and take them through the Naviance online college search program, the process of obtaining letters of recommendation, and writing thank-you notes, Bishop said.
The class will also include a mock admissions exercise in which students take on the role of an admissions officer and are asked to select among applicants and explain why.
During the next few months, guidance counselors will meet individually with every student’s parents to make sure they are working on a plan, whether it’s for college, the military, or something else, Bishop said.
“We make it a priority,’’ Bishop said. “It’s important to build relationships with them.’’
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.’’
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. Visitors can talk to current college students, see dorms, and tour the facilities.
“It gives students an opportunity to see first-hand 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 recommends that even if a student doesn’t think they would 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.’’
She 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, the process can even be enjoyable, she said.
“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.