A year ago, Lida Zheng was wrapping up her junior year at Centennial High School and starting to think about college. Now she is a Centennial graduate, heading for Cornell University.
This week, Zheng and about 35 other just-minted graduates returned to Centennial to talk to juniors about the pitfalls and pressures of applying to colleges.
"Last year, when we heard seniors talk, it was really helpful," said Zheng, explaining why she returned to school for the program, called College Visions Day.
In its second year, College Visions Day gives juniors embarking on the application process a chance to hear from seniors and parents who are emerging on the other side of the process.
On Tuesday morning, two classes filed into the cafeteria to hear from five students and a parent, who discussed, among other things, the pros and cons of college tours, the advantages of early admission and the things they wish they had done differently. Different classes met with different graduates throughout the day.
When it was over, Junior Carl Suhrstedt, 17, said the session was a wake-up call. "We need to pay attention to deadlines because they can sneak up on you," he said.
"The main thing I heard is to start early," said Kristine Latham, 17, who wants to attend a large school such as Boston University or the University of Maryland, College Park.
That's the kind of response that Betsy Coe, who is in charge of the school's counseling department, wanted when she helped create College Visions Day. She said the goal was to press home information that students are tired of hearing from teachers.
"The kids weren't necessarily hearing what we were saying to them," she said. But students tend to listen to other students. "We really feel that this is a valuable tool."
While other students are sloughing off responsibilities as the school year comes to an end, juniors who are applying to colleges are embarking on a stressful few months. Most college applications must be in by early November, so students are running out of time to choose their schools, visit campuses, get recommendations, fill out myriad forms, write essays and learn about available scholarships.
Coe encouraged students to get information -- including a biographical sketch and a resume-like document listing accomplishments, hobbies and volunteer work -- to school counselors by Wednesday, the end of the school year, so they can write recommendations over the summer.
Claire Wilson, who will attend UM, College Park, also urged juniors to start checking on scholarships. "If you start looking for scholarships early, that's good," she said. "I didn't do it, but I should have."
Centennial High School begins preparing students for the college application process in 10th grade, said Coe. During junior year, students work with counselors to come up with a list of schools, divided into the categories of reach, realistic and safety.
Students are encouraged to visit the schools, but several recent graduates warned that the tours can be misleading. A tour guide who is an art major might focus on art, giving the impression that the school is not good for math majors, they said. They urged students to walk around on their own, or find friends who attend the school and can show them around.
"If you happen to know somebody who goes to the school, definitely you can just skip the tour and let the student show you around," Wilson said.
SATs are the standardized test of choice at most colleges, but Wilson said she opted to take the ACT as well, and did better.
When asked what they would have done differently, Zheng said she wasted time applying to some schools that she never planned to attend.
But Parent Sara Seifter said there is nothing wrong with casting a wide net. Seifter has one son who just graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology and another who will start at the University of Pennsylvania. Her advice to students who want to get into top colleges was to apply to as many as possible.
Top schools, she said, cannot accept 10 kids from Centennial, so one student might get into Harvard and be rejected at Yale, while another, equally qualified student will get into Yale but be rejected at Harvard.
"You can have an absolutely perfect record and not get in," she said. "Some people get in, and others don't," and the reasons are not always clear.
Wanda Murry, who will attend Bowie State University, said the best part of the process is receiving those acceptance envelopes. "For me, the whole application process was not fun," she said.
Stressful as it can be, Wilson urged students not to become consumed by colleges.
"Don't talk about it nonstop," she said.