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High school can be difficult for many students and making the transition to college can be even more difficult.

According to Susan Isler, college consultant and owner of Isler College Consulting in Shaker Heights; Missy Rose, director of college guidance at Laurel School in Shaker Heights; and Tracy Stockard, director of college counseling at Gilmour Academy in Gates Mills, preparing for the college transition while in high school can soften the blow.

“Throughout high school, the student should obviously be taking their studies seriously so they can get good grades, but they also need to learn how to study and become self-advocates,” Stockard said. “Those last two skills are very different than just securing good grades. Students need to learn skills like time management, note-taking and daily class preparation over cramming for a test.”

Students should also hone self-advocacy skills, Stockard said, as they should be comfortable asking for help during and after class, revising papers and mastering course content.

“A deep understanding of course material will go much further than simply learning something for a test,” she noted. “Mastering these skills in high school will translate to academic success at the college level.”

Isler said the areas she focuses on with students are course work, character and spending summer wisely.

“Ideally, the most important thing is taking the most challenging courses they can handle and still be OK and healthy,” she said. “A few meaningful activities are really important and those should be things they are passionate about. Colleges are looking towards a student’s character. Look for ways to contribute to your community, show empathy, leadership and compassion. As for the summer, it doesn’t have to be an expensive program, it could be a job.”

Isler added though it’s important to take challenging courses, it’s not necessary to take them across the board. She suggested students work to their strengths.

When preparing for college, Rose suggested students get started early if possible.

“The academic preparation takes place throughout high school,” she stated. “The most highly selective colleges and universities will expect a rigorous course load with several AP (Advanced Placement) and honors courses. Students should consider taking a practice SAT and ACT as early as the summer before their junior year to determine which test works best for them.”

Students can even begin preparing as early as ninth grade. But this preparation isn’t as serious as the preparation nearing the end of high school. Rose said this can just be identifying areas of interest.

“They should pursue those in-depth as they continue through sophomore, junior and senior years,” she noted. “If leadership positions exist, they should try to get involved at that level.”

But knowing when to start preparing is a case by case basis, Isler added.

“This is really about the individual student,” she said. “It’s meeting them where they are, but ideally, at the end of 10th grade and the beginning of 11th, it’s game time.”

The professionals said students involved in their programs have many options when seeking guidance about college prep.

At Laurel School, students are encouraged early on to explore their interests and focus on a few to hone their skills. In upper-level high school grades, students are also exposed to various college workshop opportunities. For Gilmour Academy, faculty take an active role in being a support system for students. As for Isler’s college counseling program, students are guided through various parts of college preparation from searching for schools and individualized plans, to college visits, interviews and essays.

But any level of preparation does make a difference.

“A deep understanding of course materials will go much further in college than simply learning something for a test,” Stockard said. “Remember, college grades are based largely on a couple of exams and perhaps a paper or two. It’s hard to cram for an exam that might cover a whole semester’s worth of material. This is why it is imperative students learn how to study through constant review and mastery. All too often you hear of students who got good grades in high school fizzle out in college.”

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