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The Search: Five tips for finding the right college

Collegefair

Rosemarie Lenz, 16, of Clarence, fills out a form at the St. Bonaventure University stand during the National College Fair at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center on Tuesday. (Derek Gee / Buffalo News)

SATs. Financial aid. College essays.

The college application process can be daunting.

But admissions officers say students can take the stress out of the process if they start early and stay organized.

Admissions officers, school counselors and others gathered Tuesday for Buffalo's National College Fair at the Buffalo Niagara Convention Center. See what advice they have for high school juniors in this video:

Here are five tips for juniors preparing to navigate the college selection process.

Visit the Campus: There is a slew of information online about colleges. But admissions experts say the only real way to find out if a school is the right fit is to set foot on campus.

Once you've done your research to narrow down the choices, plan to visit your top schools.

Claudia Rodems, school counselor at Cheektowaga Central High School, recommends that students go "off the beaten path."

"You absolutely want to do the college tour, and perhaps you want to go sit in some classrooms and see what the class situation is like," Rodems said. "Maybe talk to the professors in that major that you're interested in, but also take an opportunity to go sit and have lunch in the cafeteria. Just listen to the conversation around you."

J.L. Miller, senior admissions counselor at Houghton College, recommends that students spend the night on campus, attend a class and meet with professors.

"Really immerse yourself," Miller said, "because it is such a significant decision."

Start Writing: The summer before your senior year is a good time to start working on the first draft of those college essays, said Eric Danielson, assistant director of admissions at St. Bonaventure University. 

Students can check out the Common Application online to get an idea of what types of essays are often required. Most essay topics, Danielson said, are open-ended, giving students a lot to write about. Preparing over the summer will give students time to polish their writing.

"Really, the best essays … tell us something about a student that we can't find out anywhere else in the application," Danielson said.

That means don't just list your extracurricular activities and background. Give admissions officers a taste of your personality.

And start early to give yourself a chance to eliminate typos and grammatical errors that can detract from an application.

Danielson also recommends that students use the summer before their senior year to think about what teachers they will ask for recommendations. 

Gather Financial Information Early: Parents and students should fill out financial forms as soon as possible after Jan. 1 of their senior year, said Robin Chase, program analyst for New York State Higher Education Services Corp.

"You want to get it done as quickly as possible, because any school-based aid is first-come, first-serve," Chase said.

Parents and students should also sit down and talk about the college options and explore ways to pay for school. Many parents, Chase said, erroneously assume that they won't qualify for financial aid.

"The earlier you file your financial aid forms, the better packages will be available to you from the respective financial aid offices," said Harry Gong, director of admissions at Niagara University.

Deadlines, Deadlines, Deadlines: Start keeping track of what's due and what standardized tests you'll need to take in your junior year.

Gong recommends that high school juniors work closely with their school counselors to make sure they know about admission deadlines and requirements so they're ready to apply early in their senior year. 

"They should be really meeting now with their counselors and letting their counselors know exactly what it is they're thinking and where they might be planning on going," Gong said. 

Relax: There's so much going in the junior and senior years of high school, it can be easy to panic, said J.L. Miller, senior admission counselor at Houghton College.

"Don't stress," Miller said. "Step back and realize that you're going to be able to find a college; you're going to be able to get in."

Meeting requirements early, Miller said, will help take the stress off students as they focus on their final year of high school.

"You're talking about four very important years of your life," Miller said. "You don't want to just pick a school because you think its buildings are pretty or because its cost is cheap. You want to pick somewhere that is your fit and where you will thrive."

If You Go

What: Buffalo's National College Fair

Where: Buffalo Niagara Convention Center

When: 6 to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday

What you need to know: Evening workshops include information on financial aid, standardized tests, residence life and essay writing. Admission is free.

--Denise Jewell Gee

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