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Some students spend their four years of high school prepping for college admissions. By senior year, they are tasked with packaging their entire high school experience into an application.
That application, judged by college representatives, largely determines if the students are a good fit for the school.
September and October mark when high school seniors are in full swing, selecting which schools they will apply to and fine-tuning their essays. But with changes to the application process, particularly a shift to digital, those months can be some of the most stressful for students.
The earliest deadlines typically fall in November, when certain institutions offer early admission or early action - in which students receive a decision quicker by applying sooner. Other dates fall anywhere from December through February.
Elizabeth "Lizann" Jones, a Liberty High School senior, said she has padded her application by enrolling in AP and honors courses. She also teaches Sunday school at Wesley Freedom United Methodist Church and plays basketball for Liberty. In the spring, she will run track and field.
But that won't be enough for the college admissions offices of Towson, Mount St. Mary's and Millersville universities, the three schools to which Jones is applying, she said. She also will need to secure letters of recommendation from her guidance counselor and teachers and then follow up to ensure the recommendations are actually written.
"You have to give the teachers little tips of who you are so they know what to write," Jones said.
Liz Messina, Jones' stepsister and also a Liberty High senior, said the most difficult portion of the application is crafting an admissions essay.
"I feel like the questions are pretty vague," Messina said. "You have to come up with answers that make you stand out."
College applications, particularly the essay, are a continual topic of discussion, both among students and teachers and administrators, Messina said.
"It always comes up," she said. "People ask: 'Where are you in your applications? Where are you applying?' It's just a major part of my life right now."
Jones said she and her father sat down early in the year to plan her calendar - which obligations she could and could not meet. Most of the dates through December were filled.
"Senior year is a lot of work," Jones said.
Parents are a good resource, but with the prominent shift to online applications, sometimes even they are lost, according to Ed Wharton, the department chairman of South Carroll High School's counseling center.
South Carroll's counseling center schedules one-on-one visits between seniors and a counselor, who offers students assistance with their college applications or advice about entering the military or workforce.

Common App
Wharton said the advent of the Common Application has largely changed the methodology of college applications. Common App is a digital service that allows students to send out their applications en masse to the more than 500 colleges who enroll in the service. Thirteen colleges from Maryland use the Common App, according to its website.
Instructors and administration can upload recommendation letters directly to the Common App website, which is convenient, Wharton said.
An application fee, determined by the individual institutions, is still required.
The advantage of Common App, which Wharton said has become more prominent in the last four years, is that students won't spend excess hours tailoring applications, but also means they need to demonstrate a greater commitment to a school.
"Going to a college visit, going to college fairs, emailing the colleges to ask questions about student groups or majors - those are all ways students can demonstrate interest," Wharton said.
Towson University is enrolled in the Common App and offers a Towson application on its website, said Dave Fedorchak, TU director of University Admissions.
Towson began using the Common App system in 2011, and since then, the number of students applying through Common App significantly dwarfed the number who use the Towson application. Approximately 12,263 freshman applied for the fall 2013 semester using Common App, while only 4,230 students used the Towson application. Of those applications around 8 percent were not completed, according to Fedorchak.
Fedorchak said that admissions officers do not look down on students who use the Common App, which is actually lengthier, but contains similar questions to the Towson application.
University of Maryland, Baltimore County only offers the Common App for student applications, according to Katie Murray, associate director of the UMBC Office of Admissions and Orientation.
UMBC was one of the first state schools to adopt the system - Murray estimated roughly five years ago. She said that the Common App provides a structured system for students and high school representatives to submit the required materials.
UMBC can include specific questions they want answered, which makes the Common App more representative of a student. For instance, a student can select one of five essay questions.
"It's easier for the student," Murray said.
McDaniel is enrolled in Common App, but also offers a McDaniel "smart decision" application - students can fill out either one, and neither is more advantageous for admission, said Cheryl Knauer, director of media relations at McDaniel College. The two applications are similar, she said, though the "smart decision" application is pre-populated with information a student provides McDaniel through correspondence with admissions office representatives.
According to an email from Knauer, McDaniel seeks individuals who have participated in accelerated or honors courses, writing capability and cohesive letters of recommendation.
The best practice for college applications, Wharton said, is to take your time and take advantage of school and personal resources.
"If you need a week to write an essay, make sure you have a week," he said. "Or if you need two weeks, take two weeks. Budget your time wisely."

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