Back to school: Guidance advice: Start early, strike a balance

  • Charlene Allen, director of the guidance department at Frontier Regional in South Deerfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/20/2019 3:47:48 PM

DEERFIELD — When it comes to securing a coveted acceptance letter to a student’s dream college, there is no universal path to success, according to area guidance counselors.

But certain factors, such as an early start and striking a balance between academics, extracurriculars, and free time, are key in preparing students for the future.

For students at Frontier Regional School, which serves grades 7-12 in Deerfield and surrounding towns, college and career preparation begins in middle school and continues throughout high school, said Director of Guidance Charlene Allen.

“We start letting them know the various things that colleges look for in students very early on so that they have their entire high school career to make sure that they have time to develop some of the skills, join some of the organizations, those sort of things,” Allen said.

“We talk to them really early on about the need to think of this as a four-year plan,” she said of college preparation, “and not just senior year.”

This early start involves emphasizing the weight that colleges put on a four-year, cumulative high school GPA, Allen said. While colleges may also consider an applicant’s improvement over the course of high school, students should not underestimate the importance of their academics during their underclassmen years.

Colleges also consider the rigor of a student’s schedule, Allen said, evaluating factors such as “what a high school has offered” in terms of honors and AP-level courses, “and what students have taken.”

But as many already know, a stellar GPA doesn’t necessarily guarantee a student admittance into their dream school. Students should also strive to be involved with extracurriculars, Allen said, but should focus on depth over breadth.

“It’s not just a matter of joining organizations and having a list a mile long,” Allen said. “It’s what they’ve done for those organizations. What have they actually accomplished? What skills have they gained?”

To fully take advantage of extracurriculars, students should again seek to become involved early, Allen said, which provides them with an opportunity to showcase their progress as they take on larger roles throughout high school. For example, a thespian may start out as a supporting character and eventually land a leading role, or a club member may take on an officer role.

Lisa Zephyr, a school counselor and department chair for the guidance office at Amherst-Pelham Regional High School, echoed Allen’s thoughts on the importance of establishing a strong foundation early in a student’s academic career.

While a solid start is important, students should also avoid overextending themselves, Allen and Zephyr said.

“When students are in ninth grade, the counselors always make sure they have a really comprehensive program of study,” Zephyr said, “and that we help them find the balance between challenging themselves as much as each individual is able to while also trying to have a balanced, healthy high school experience.”

This plan is intended to “set all of our students up so that they are college-ready if they make that decision once the time comes,” Zephyr said. Beginning in junior year, students also begin to meet with a college counselor, who helps them to hone their long-term goals and interests and decide what colleges would best suit their goals.

Allen advised that students talk with family members, guidance counselors and other people they trust if they are having trouble deciding how many responsibilities they should take on.

Students may also choose to emphasize different aspects of their schooling based on their future aspirations, she added.

While grades will always be a priority for those who wish to attend competitive, academically-focused schools, “not all schools have a focus of academics,” Allen said.

“For instance, if you’re applying to an arts school, your portfolio is going to be as critical as your grades,” she continued, “so it really depends on the person’s goals and what they’re heading towards.”

Volunteer opportunities can also be as valuable as extracurriculars, Allen said, if not more so in some cases; an aspiring nurse may find direction through volunteering at the local hospital.

“Sometimes people’s interests are more associated with things that they might do outside of the school,” Allen said. “It’s not a matter of one or the other necessarily being more important, but looking at what your interest and goals are.”

Maggie Folli, a school counselor and department chair at Belchertown High School, also said that students should seek to strike a balance throughout their academic careers.

“Students are faced with great challenges, which not only include academics and the rigor that is attached to that, but they also have to tackle work, sports, music, clubs, and of course family, etcetera,” Folli wrote via email. “We try to tailor our focus to the individual student   and help them find the post-secondary plan that best fits their needs.”

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at

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