Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Nancy Parks, college counselor at Blanchet School in Salem, aids Monique Woodward.
Catholic Sentinel photo by Gerry Lewin
Nancy Parks, college counselor at Blanchet School in Salem, aids Monique Woodward.
To pick a college, teens should research potential schools, but also get to know themselves. That’s wisdom from counselors at Oregon’s Catholic high schools.  

“We tell students, ‘You have two projects. One is to figure out what colleges are out there. The other is to look at who you are,’” says Sharon Ivey, director of college counseling at St. Mary’s Academy in Portland.

“Students need to research what they’re interested in,” says Barbara Ward, counselor at De La Salle North Catholic High in Portland.

The main task for freshmen and sophomores is studying hard, getting the best grades possible and trying many activities. Ward says exploration in academics, clubs and sports will further self-knowledge for when time comes to start seriously considering college — about midway through junior year.

After exploring far and wide as younger students, juniors and seniors can focus on extracurriculars that make sense for them, says Ivey. “One activity is not more important than another,” she explains. “What’s important is whether you have shown commitment and leadership.”

Joe Bernard, college counselor at Valley Catholic in Beaverton, asks students to think about five factors to learn about colleges and themselves. First is area of academic interest. It’s OK to be undecided, but it’s important to at least explore the academic rigor of a college.

Second is location. “Sometimes juniors think traveling as far away as humanly possible from their parents is a good idea,” says Bernard. But by senior year, 90 percent of students in the nation choose colleges within 500 miles of home.

Third is size. Both large schools and small schools have their advantages and disadvantages. The task is to see which fits you better.

Hard to define but significant is the fourth factor — campus environment. Is it political? Religious? Friendly? Competitive? Is it a liberal arts school or for engineering types? Bernard asks would-be applicants to visit campuses and ask themselves, “Are these the type of students I would like to hang out with?”

The fifth factor, to be worked out with parents, is cost and how to round up the money for tuition.

Bernard suggests that juniors assemble a list of 15 to 20 colleges and progressively winnow down to five by application time — fall of senior year.

Patricia Smith, director of college counseling at St. Mary’s School in Medford, suggests that students go on a “shopping expedition” during their junior year. Every school has a virtual tour online and the website offers less-biased versions. Personal visits, if possible, are even better. Once students are accepted they can usually take advantage of free weekend overnighters on campus.

“You need to research and ask questions,” Smith says. “If the fit is not right, the student will not do as well.”

While major fields of study are important, Smith realizes that most students enter college undecided and even change majors as they get to know themselves and the world better.

“It’s OK to be an engineering major today and an art major tomorrow,” she says.  

“The big question is, what sort of school are you looking for and why?” says Court Wirth, a counselor at Marist High in Eugene. “Students need to find out what is the best fit all around.” Wirth encourages visits to college campuses while classes are in session to get the best sense of a place.

For some students, a religious environment is vital. Other Catholic students choose public colleges; they get advised to investigate campus ministry or a nearby parish.
“It’s important to find that connection,” says Peter Johnson, director of college advising at Jesuit.

Johnson urges students — even those who want to attend far afield — to visit campuses in the Portland area to get a sense of differences among public, private, small, large, religious and secular. Such exploration will help teens discover what size and environment is the best fit.

The web offers good tools to help in the tasks of choosing a college and a major. The College Board website offers a preparation system and a search engine for colleges by location, major and cost.  

La Salle Prep in Milwaukie uses a website that helps students build a portfolio for college and follow timelines for preparation and application deadlines. The website — — tracks statistics about La Salle students who have applied to certain schools and been admitted in the past. The site also lists scholarship opportunities.

In the world of college financial aid, there’s a  quirk; students don’t know what they’ll receive until they’ve been accepted. “It’s worth the time and the $50 to apply to see what aid you can get,” says Wirth of Marist.

Johnson of Jesuit advises students not to eliminate schools simply because the tuition looks out of reach. One never knows what financial aid will come through. At the same time, he says, parents should be upfront with students about monetary limits.

“It’s sticker shock out there,” says Ward of De La Salle, who sees students take out loans of $20,000 or more.

In the end, counselors urge high school students to fearlessly ask questions. The aim is to discover one’s passions and dreams while being practical.

“It’s important that students keep their options open initially and explore a wide range of opportunities,” says Teri Calcagno, college counselor at Central Catholic High in Portland. “It’s all about finding the right fit. There are a lot of great college options for students. Not only do you want to find the right academic fit but a personal one as well.”

The University of Portland hosts a college fair in the Chiles Center sports dome noon-3 p.m. on Sunday, March 18. More than 100 colleges will have representatives on hand.