You might have seen a college campus or two in your travels, but high school counselor Tara Miller has visited a whopping 70 campuses in the past 15 years. The college and career counselor at Austin High School makes a point of visiting as many as she can, leveraging her family vacations as yet another opportunity to gather information for the students she guides through their big decisions.


And she says the college application process should be very different from the conventional wisdom. “So many students ask, ‘What do I need to do to get into this school?’” Miller says. “And my advice is, ‘Let’s find a school that meets who you are.’” With that in mind, we sat down to talk about the ins and outs of college admissions.


AFM: What can you learn on a campus visit that you can’t learn from the website?

Miller: You get a feeling when you step on campus, just like when you’re shopping for a house or car. You see a lot of similarities. They all have rec centers. A lot of them have climbing walls. But you also get to see the differences. Is it a small school? Is it in the middle of a city, like UT Austin? Or is it like Southwestern, in the suburbs? I encourage students to try and think outside their comfort zone. Do you want a place that feels like home, or do you want to grow, challenge yourself, expand your horizons? This is your opportunity to experience something completely new.


AFM: If you can’t visit a campus, how can you get a feel for the college?

Miller: It can be overwhelming and cost a lot for families to do campus visits. College Greenlight distributes a list of college fly-in opportunities for students without means to apply to visit many colleges. Students can apply for scholarships to attend the diversity or first-generation fly-ins. Also, colleges that come to the high schools can bridge that gap, too. We have over 125 colleges that come to our school, just to visit with students during the school day. Any interested student can sign up and in 30 or 45 minutes, they can hear about the college, ask questions, see what kinds of majors they have, how much it will cost, ways to earn scholarships and get materials to take home.


AFM: What can middle schoolers be doing now?

Miller: I have a middle school child myself. The biggest is to learn organization, don’t procrastinate and to love learning. Those three things are going to help them in high school, in college and for the rest of their lives. The harder you work now, the more prepared you are later. Another thing middle schoolers can do is write more, get their thoughts out on paper. Austin ISD is good about that, and students need to learn to express who they are, whether it’s through media, videos, essays, resumes.


AFM: What can high schoolers be doing?

Miller: We interview seniors when they’re getting ready to graduate. Over and over I hear, “I wish I would have known how important GPA was.” So 9th, 10th and 11th grade: those three years are what you’re applying to college with. You can’t just kick it in gear senior year. Challenge yourself, yes, but try to maintain a balance. You don’t have to be extreme to get into college. A B in an advanced course is much better than all A’s in regular courses. It shows that you’re pushing yourself.


AFM: What about students who don’t know what they want to do?

Miller: There’s nothing wrong with taking your time to figure that out. Many students start at community college, and many of them choose other paths, like the military or two-year associate’s degrees. Austin Community College is a great resource. There’s this pressure – and I think parents can really help diffuse this – to make sure your student is going to a “good school.” And that’s not necessarily what’s best for the student. The student might not even be ready for that. Sending your student away to school can cost 40, 50, 60 thousand dollars a year. That’s quite an expensive experiment. There are programs now where you can get an apprenticeship. You can do a gap year. Travel. Do service in your community. The idea is that you’re not done learning.


AFM: So you don’t object to a gap year?

Miller: Not at all. In fact, I think it’s becoming more popular and more accepted. Some college acceptance letters say, “If you choose to take a gap year, just let us know.” They’ll hold your place. There are programs where your gap year directly translates into your first year of college. Many schools allow you to take study abroad or gap year programs in the middle of your college education, too. It is not a race.


AFM: Got any “secret” tips for finding the right college?

Miller: Talk to your high school counselor or college counselor. I know people hire private college consultants, not to say that’s wrong. But a lot of students and families don’t realize they have a free resource with a lot of knowledge in the high school. Now, when you go to a large high school, it’s going to take a little bit of persistence, and you have to be the initiator. But if you want, you can get the same service for free. You just have to reach out, make that appointment, walk into their office.


Another tip is to keep your list small. I say to really research six to eight schools, and your life is going to be so much easier. Keep it on a spreadsheet – what you have to turn in for each application. A counselor can help you build that small list. Don’t pick the same schools that all your friends are going to. Try to think outside the box. Be OK with that uncertainty.


AFM: What’s some bad advice you’ve heard?

Miller: People say, “Go to the best school you get into.” That’s not really good advice, because you should go to the school that is the best fit for you. Students think, “This is the better school, so I have to go here.” Even if it costs more, and they’re going to get in a lot of debt? Or it’s not really a good academic fit? And don’t talk to too many people. Everyone has an opinion. Choose your two or three people, stick with those people and don’t build your list based on what your friends are doing.


AFM: Any last thoughts?

Miller: My students come back and talk to me after they’ve been in college for a year. They say they wish they’d stressed less about the college process. They say, “I’m here and I’m happy. At the end of the day, it didn’t matter that I didn’t get into XYZ school.” I have too many kids and families trying to mold themselves to get into a certain school. Don’t do that. Be OK with your choice. Be your best self, and you’ll find a school that’s the right fit for you. Another tip to try and mitigate the tension during application season that can sometimes happen between parents and their high school seniors is to designate one day per week to talk about college, brainstorm and organize materials. Keep it to that day.


Save the dates for local college and gap year fairs


Aug. 10            Colleges That Change Lives Fair

Oct. 1               FAFSA Opens for Seniors (Free Application for Federal Student Aid)

Feb. 1               Gap Year Fairs

Apr. 16             National College Fair

(Dates are subject to change)


Sherida Mock, editor of Austin Family Magazine.

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