Tips, what to know about getting into college

Application process, college prep high schools, paying and more

HOUSTON – Getting into college is a major topic at the top of mind for many parents and students.

Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin have both recently been plastered all over the headlines, accused of participating in college admissions cheating scandals to help their children get into college.

But for most parents, helping children get into college can be overwhelming.

That's how Key Sterling feels.

"Just trying to figure things out. What's the best road to go on? Who do I talk to?" she said, exasperated. "Getting help for her. Does she have to pay to stay in the dorms? Just all that kind of stuff. So it's just a lot."

The mom of three never went to college, but she plans to start a new legacy of higher learning when her daughter, DeBriah, graduates in the Class of 2020 from Fulshear High School.

DeBriah is is looking forward to college.

"When I grow up, I want to be a cardiologist. Well, specialize in pediatrics, because I just love helping kids, really," said the 16-year-old.

That brings us back to the subject of her mom helping her to get into college. Sterling said she doesn’t know where to begin.

She's not alone, according to Adriana Wilson, of Project Grad Houston.

Project Grad Houston is a completely free program that offers students help with career exploration, college applications, practice SAT and ACT tests and financial aid applications.

The organization has two local offices where it assists students and parents with all of their college admission needs. GRADcafé is in Baytown, and cafécollege is on Quitman Street in Houston.

"We serve a lot of first-generation students who just don't know what the college process is like. And a big part of our programming is to help parents and families understand not just the application process, but what life is going to be like for the student once they go to college," Wilson said.

The organization also has GRADcafé on the Go, which is a mobile experience bringing all the Project Grad Houston resources to the community to help parents and students with the college process—no matter their desired college path. GRADcafé on the Go is a partnership between Project GRAD and the Harris County Public Library.

College application process

Depending on when you last applied for college, the college application process may have changed.

For students applying for college in Texas, there's the ApplyTexas app, which allows them to use one application to apply to any Texas public university or participating community or private college.

If a student wants to attend college outside Texas, they can use the Common app, which boasts a list of 822 universities throughout the United States where the students can apply with just one application.

College essay portion of the application

Wilson said when it comes to the essay portion of the application, students should "be unique."

"It's not so much about why you're a good college student, but why are you unique as an individual and what can you add to that college campus? What is your contribution to them? Why do they want you there?" Wilson said.

Just what age should you start preparing to help get your child into college? The expert opinions may surprise you.

"Middle school's a really good time to start exploring and thinking about careers," Wilson said. "(Students should) start understanding what is the college process, because you're starting to make choices at that point that are going to impact your high school career. Your high school career is going to impact what schools you go to."

College prep high schools help give students edge with college admissions

Nichole Gonzalez beams with pride as she walks down the hallway of her school and rattles off some of the colleges where her Class of 2019 students have been accepted.

As the college-bound adviser for Houston Independent School District's Young Women's College Preparatory Academy, she helps the girls get into college.

She has this tip for parents when it comes to helping their child pick a major:

"We look at what they like. I also like to talk to them about what problem they want to solve in life, instead of, 'What career do you want to do?' 'Cause that's kind of cliché, right?" Gonzalez said. "From there, we look at, 'What are your interests,' ... 'What are you good at?' because if you're not good at something, how are we going to get there to what major?"

She also said when it comes to applying for schools, students should have a top pick and then a No. 2 and No. 3, but students shouldn't apply to more than four schools, especially since the application process is usually stressful for students.

"They wonder, 'Am I going to get in?'"

If your child does not attend a college prep high school, there are still programs out there to help them get into college.

Locally, there is also Emerge, which "empowers and prepares high-performing students from underserved communities to attend and graduate from selective colleges and universities across the nation," according to the program's website. You may have seen some of the billboards featuring scholars from the program all around town. The students in the program come from districts all around the city, including HISD, Spring Branch ISD and Spring ISD.

Courtesy: Emerge, Scholar Bootcamp 2019

Hiring college consultant

For those parents willing to pay for a more personalized approach to guiding your child through the college admissions process, a college consultant just may be the route.

Elana Guerra is a college admissions consultant with Bright Futures Consulting and said fees for services start at $4,000.

"I guide students -- primarily in junior high and early high school -- and I guide them through the college admissions process. And that can look a lot of different ways. But it can include extracurricular planning, course selection, building resumes," Guerra said.

Yep! That's right -- a resume for high school students!

Guerra said unlike adult resumes, which highlight work experience, these student resumes can be filled with information about personal art projects, babysitting, petsitting or even house-sitting experience.

"All these things go on a resume, because it's who the student is, how they are spending their time, how they're exploring their interests," Guerra said. "Again, it doesn't always have to be this sponsored or recognized or professional activity, as you might imagine a polished resume might contain."

Guerra said if you are considering hiring a college consultant, make sure the consultant is reputable. There are a few accreditation agencies where you can check out a consultant's credentials before hiring them, including the National Association for College Admission Counseling and The American Institute of Certified Educational Planners.

School selection Is more than just a name

Each college expert we spoke with agreed that neither students nor parents should base their decision to apply for a college upon a school's name and notoriety. Instead, the goal is to make sure the school is a good fit for the student beyond academics.

Wilson said the questions you should ask are pretty broad: "Are you going to feel comfortable on the campus? Is there going be communities that you can fit into? Extracurricular activities, cultural activities -- also price tag."

For now, DeBriah continues to stack her resume with experiences and activities and study for the SAT until it's time to apply to her first college. Her school of choice: Baylor University.

"It's a really good school. It has premed, and that's what I want to do," DeBriah said.

Paying for college

RELATED: How to save money when paying for college

Each expert we spoke with stressed the importance of financial planning and meeting deadlines for free aid and scholarships. For local students interested in attending local colleges, there are several programs that have been recently introduced to help students go to college for free:

For students looking to save money by attending community college for their degree or attending community college and then transferring to a four-year college or university, Houston Community College shared this chart from College for All Texans, which shows the savings and value of taking courses at a community college.