Our College Counseling Office takes a grounded, holistic approach to the search process. We consider each student’s achievements and ambitions, and look for a college capable of deepening and extending them. We stay focused on what we’re doing right now (global thinking, compassionate community engagement, cross-disciplinary research, etc.) — and we make smart, strategic plans for what’s next. Not coincidentally, our alumni tend to feel exceptionally prepared for college coursework.
An Overview of the Process
Below are milestones and suggestions for each upper school grade level which should be helpful for you as you embark on this journey. In addition to these steps, we offer a variety of programming throughout the year for parents and students in grades 9–12, for example, presentations from our college counselors, conversations with college Deans and Directors of Admissions, mock admissions panels, presentations on athletics and performing arts in college, and financial aid information sessions. Below is a guide to what you can look forward to each year.
During freshman year, you are encouraged to focus on working hard in the most challenging academic program in which you can succeed. Get involved in extracurricular activities, community service, and explore outside interests. Over the summer, look over a sample PSAT, take a free, online Khan Academy/College Board diagnostic exam. Of course, find time to recharge, take a summer course, and explore new passions!
Class Meeting with College Counselors
Arts/Athletics in College Night
During your sophomore year, you will take the PSAT at GFA (required), and connect your score to the Khan Academy/College Board free SAT Preparation Program. Aspiring collegiate athletes or students interested in the visual and/or performing artists should express their interest to counselors, coaches, and teachers. Varsity athletes should begin gathering game film.
Each spring, course selection begins with counseling from the college office. Students will meet individually to work on and revise their four year course plan. In addition, students also receive a personalized standardized testing plan in the spring of their sophomore year.
In the summer, take on a summer job, explore internship opportunities, and try out a summer course. It’s fine to visit a few college campuses and tour (no interviews — it is too soon!) and to connect with appropriate special interest groups (athletics, legacy programs, etc.).
Arts/Athletics in College Night, PSAT
Class Meeting with College Counselors
Mock Admissions Panel, AP Exams
Subject Tests if appropriate
Junior year is a busy one. Students and parents receive College Guidance Questionnaires and parents attend College Guidance Junior Parents’ program. Individual counselors are assigned before December break, and formal preparations for standardized tests begin in the winter.
Students attend Junior Seminar second semester to:
- learn how to research colleges and network.
- learn about the college selection process.
- learn about college application essays; brainstorm and begin a draft.
- complete Common Application (except for essay writing).
Students meet individually with their counselors in both January and May, and the first family meeting will begin late winter/early spring. College visits also begin in the spring, with interviews when possible. This is the time to request teacher recommendations.
In the summer, draft essays, prepare supplements and portfolios (if required), continue visits and interviews, deepen your research and continue to narrow your list, and continue work experience, internships, and summer learning. Recruited athletes should stay in contact with coaches and be prepared to commit if offered a spot on a desired team.
PSAT/NMSQT National Merit Scholarship Competition
Students' College Process Kickoff
Student Questionnaires released
Parents' College Information Night
Parent Questionnaires released
Individual Student/Counselor Meetings begin
Family Meetings Begin
Mock Admissions Panel
AP Exams, SAT, SAT Subject Tests
ACT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests
ACT, SAT, SAT Subject Tests
By senior year you should complete standardized testing and finalize your college list. Keep a close eye on deadlines and details of applications. Most importantly, be engaged and enjoy your senior year.
Throughout fall and in Senior Seminar:
- complete college applications.
- send official standardized testing (where required).
- develop and share plan/progress completing applications.
- continue networking with admissions officers.
- continue weekly contact with the College Guidance Office for support until applications are complete.
SAT or SAT Subject Tests
Senior Parent Information Night
SAT or SAT Subject Tests
Financial Aid Workshop
Most Early Decision, Early Action, and Restrictive Early Action Applications are due. Recommended deadline for submission to schools with rolling application processes
ED 1 and some EA schools notify students of admissions decisions
Regular Decision Applications due between January and March
ED II Notifications
Notification of Regular Decisions
National College Deposit Deadline AP Exams
Beginning Your Research
GFA teaches students to be curious, engaged, and learn independently. Nowhere is that more important than in preparing to apply to college. Just like preparing for a research project, the college process begins with thinking about one’s purpose and interests, while researching widely. And just like any research project, the process is recursive: self-reflection provides you with a basis for gathering data and preparing for college visits. We suggest starting your journey with these three steps:
Self-reflection provides you with a basis for gathering data and preparing for college visits. As you begin this process, ask yourself the following questions:
- What are you interested in?
- What do you like to do in your free time?
- What do you feel most passionate about?
- How do you learn best?
- What do you think you want to do in the future?
- Who are you?
The more research you do, the more focused your inquiry will become. Get off to a strong start by:
- reading widely, Good resources include: guide books; college websites, social media, and blogs; Junior Seminar, your college counselor;
- identifying what kind of college you are looking for. Identify areas of focus that match your interests and needs: location, campus setting, programs, and/or learning environment;
- using college search engines on Naviance, College Board and other internet search engines to input your criteria;
- casting a wide net and researching some colleges that may be unfamiliar; and
- asking your counselor for advice and feedback.
Visits to the school are the best way to gather information.
Here are some key things to remember:
- Start with visits to a variety of types of schools (research universities, urban, rural, different sizes, conservatory, liberal arts, etc.).
- Take good notes — use the college guidance visit worksheet to record impressions, questions, and details.
- Talk with your family and your counselor about what you observe and learn.
- Gap Year
- Helpful Publications
- Application Types and Admission Policies
- Visual & Performing Arts
Some students may decide to defer their enrollment to their college of choice by a year. This year between graduating high school and matriculating to college is colloquially known as a "gap year." During this voluntary window of time, students may seek internships, travel, volunteer, or simply elect to get a job to save money for when they do go to college. There are also programs and companies available to help students tailor a gap year experience to their interests and goals.
Early Action (EA) is when students apply to a school, typically before a November 1 or 15 deadline, and are usually notified of the committee’s decision in mid- to late-December or January. During that time, students are allowed to apply early action or early decision to other schools. If accepted, students are not bound by a contract to attend, and can wait for all pending decisions to come in before they select their college of choice by May 1.
Restrictive Early Action (Single Choice Plan) is a plan under which students apply to a school early, but are not allowed to apply Early Action or Early Decision to another institution. (There are some exceptions if a student is also applying to public universities.) If accepted, students are not bound by a contract to attend, and can wait for all pending decisions to come in before they select their college of choice by May 1.
Early Decision I (ED) is a binding contract agreement under which a student applies and, if accepted, must immediately withdraw other applications and attend that college or university. The deadline is usually November 1 or November 15. Admissions decisions are usually communicated in mid- to late-December.
Early Decision II (ED II) is a binding agreement whose deadline usually follows the Early Decision-1 option. ED II is for students who were not prepared to commit to an institution in November, but are ready by January, or who were denied from their No. 1 ED choice and are now considering the ED II option for their second choice. The ED II deadline is usually in January, and the decision is returned in approximately one month. Students must be sure to meet the regular decision deadlines for the remaining schools on their college list while they wait for a response from the ED II school.
Rolling Admission refers to an admission plan that reviews applications on a rolling basis. Once an application is received and reviewed, the decisions are mailed to the student. Please note that it is important to apply early to “rolling” schools because available space in the freshman class is often limited as spring approaches.
Regular Decision is the basic college admission process. Deadlines vary from January to March, and committee decisions are usually mailed in bulk by the end of March. The national notification and enrollment deadline is May 1.
Colleges are beginning to look for talented athletes earlier and earlier. Students that are not Division I Blue Chip (highly recruited) athletes can work to become a recruited athlete at many outstanding colleges and universities with great traditions in athletics. If you are a varsity athlete and you think you may want to continue playing in college, here are a several tips:
- Let GFA Athletic Director Tauni Butterfield and your coaches know of your interest in pursuing intercollegiate athletics, and ask for honest feedback on your progress as an athlete. (This includes notifying GFA varsity coaches as well as club coaches, if any.)
- Be prepared for feedback and criticism. You can make a difference in your prospects by heeding advice.
- Create and establish a video portfolio that highlights your athletic talents. This portfolio could feature clips from across multiple games and may also include complete footage from an entire game.
- Prepare/update your athletic resumé. You can contact the GFA Athletic Director or a member of the college guidance team for assistance preparing a resume that contains the most essential information.
- If you are a starting player, you can begin e-mailing coaches as well as utilizing online school recruitment websites at select schools giving them preliminary information about your schedule and your intention to continue in college. (This list can be broad, but should include input from your coaches and College Guidance.)
- Keep your grades up. The better student you are, the more options you will have based on your ability to contribute to the teams and the college community.
- Plan to attend a camp, showcase, or other event where college coaches will get a chance to see you compete. Advice from coaches should be sought.
Visual and performing artists may share additional information with the admissions committees in the form of portfolios and auditions. For the most talented students, the supplemental aspects of the application process can help the student overcome weaker standardized test scores and some aspects of the academic performance. If applying to a fine arts program or a conservatory, students will undergo a review process that is much different than their peers who may be applying to the same college or university, but are being reviewed solely through the school’s traditional admission process requirements.
Portfolios and auditions are significant factors in the review process for artists. Students need to prepare well in advance of senior year for such evaluations if they know that they will be applying to art, music, or dance schools.
(Fine art, photography, graphic design, architecture)
Most art-specific institutions require portfolio submission. Requirements and timelines may vary, so students are encouraged to review each school’s process and submit a portfolio of their work on time. Additionally, students should seek the assistance of their art teacher if preparing a portfolio.
It is important to note that even if you are not applying to an art-specific school, some admission committees may accept submission of excellent portfolios as a way for you to distinguish yourself and your talents from the rest of the applicant pool.
Students who wish to apply to a competitive collegiate theatre program will be asked to audition. Auditions are intense, and your admission is based primarily on how well you perform. Requirements and timelines may vary so students are encouraged to review each school’s process. The school’s application usually has an earlier deadline, as the college then needs to schedule auditions from January through March.
Similar to the Visual Arts, a student not applying to a theatre program may have the opportunity to include a portfolio or other sample of their work as part of the general application process.
If applying to a conservatory or specific music program at a college, students will be asked to submit a recording of performances and/or undergo an on-campus audition. Requirements and timelines may vary so students are encouraged to review each school’s process.
Similar to the Visual Arts and Theatre, a student not applying to an arts-specific program may have the opportunity to submit recordings of their talent to admission offices as a supplementary piece of their application.
The escalating cost of higher education makes it necessary for many families to consider and apply for financial assistance. Financial aid is money that is given, earned by or lent to students to help pay for their college education. Sources of financial aid include federal and local governments, colleges and universities, and private organizations. Financial aid comes in four forms: grants and scholarships (gift aid), or loans and work-study (self-help aid). The following is designed to introduce you to the various types of financial aid and to help you understand the process of applying for aid. You are encouraged to reference the websites provided at the end of this section to gain greater insight.
- Types of Financial Aid
- Applying for Financial Aid
- Determining Eligibility
- Helpful Financial Aid Links
There are both need-based and merit-based financial aid programs. Please note, a student’s financial aid package from a college may be formed by a combination of need-based and non-need-based programs. For instance, a student may qualify for federal grants, loans, and work-study as well as receive additional institutional grants and scholarships and/or outside scholarships. Each college reviews a family’s financial profile and forms a financial aid package according to the ability and awarding policies of that respective institution.
Need-based financial aid is awarded to students whose families do not have sufficient resources to pay for college; a family’s eligibility for need-based financial aid is determined by federal forms (see Applying for Financial Aid, below), which assess a family’s income and assets and ability to pay college tuition. Loans, work-study, and grants are all sources of need-based aid. Merit-based aid is given to students on the basis of talents, abilities or achievements and is typically in the form of a scholarship.
- Grants: Various forms of need-based grants are awarded by both the government and individual colleges. Grants are a form of "gift aid" for which no repayment is needed or expected. One of the most common grants is the Federal Pell Grant, awarded accordingly to rules set by Congress; if a student is deemed eligible for a Pell Grant, his or her college will award the grant dollars to the student. A student may also be eligible for a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG), which is a campus-based program administered by the financial aid offices at participating colleges. Many colleges also offer institutional grant monies for families who demonstrate need.
- Federal Work-Study: Like the FSEOG, this is a campus-based program, whereas participating eligible colleges receive program funding from the federal government. Through work-study, a student is employed part-time on his or her college campus and is able to earn money to contribute towards college costs.
- Loans: A loan refers to borrowed money that must be repaid by the student or the student’s parents. High-need families may qualify for the Federal Perkins Loan Program, another campus-based program administered by individual college financial aid offices. The most prevalent loans are the Federal Stafford Loan for students and the Federal PLUS Loan for parents. Stafford Loans can be awarded on either a need or a non-need basis: Subsidized Stafford Loans are awarded to students on the basis of financial need. As such, the government pays the borrower’s accrued loan interest while the student is in school, thereby "subsidizing" the loan; repayment and interest accrual do not begin until six months after the student has graduated. An unsubsidized Stafford Loan is non-need-based, and the borrower is responsible for accrued interest throughout the life of the loan. However, as with the subsidized Stafford Loan, this unsubsidized loan also has a six-month "grace period" after graduation before loan repayment begins.
- Scholarships: Most scholarships are merit-based, thus awarded in recognition of academic achievement, special abilities or talents (athletic, musical, etc.), religious affiliation, ethnic or racial heritage, community activities or special interests. Scholarships may come from specific colleges or from private sources. While most scholarships are non-need-based, some merit scholarships may require that a student have demonstrated financial need. Scholarship searches should begin early in the spring of the junior year and continue through the senior year.
Families must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in order to be considered for, or to receive, need-based financial aid. The government uses this form to determine a student’s eligibility for financial assistance. All colleges require this information in order to award need-based financial aid, whether it be federal or institutional aid dollars. The FAFSA should be completed online at www.fafsa.ed.gov as soon after October 1st as possible in the student’s senior year.
At least one parent and the student will need to obtain personal identification numbers called the FSA ID. The FSA ID can be used to electronically sign the FAFSA, drastically decreasing processing time. You can also use your FSA ID to access Corrections on the Web, to include additional schools or correct updated information. Please visit www.pin.ed.gov to request a PIN.
Students are allowed to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) using prior-prior year (PPY) tax data.
Many private colleges require the College Scholarship Service (CSS) PROFILE form in addition to the FAFSA; you may register for the PROFILE on-line at https://student.collegeboard.org/css-financial-aid-profile. Consult this site to determine which private colleges require submission of the PROFILE. Registration for the PROFILE should be done in the fall of the senior year. You must register for the PROFILE at least two weeks before the earliest priority filing date specified by your colleges.
Many colleges will also request families to file an in-house financial aid form. Please consult with individual colleges.
Early Decision/Early Action (ED/EA) college applicants applying for financial aid are required to file the PROFILE or an prior-prior year FAFSA form in the fall of the senior year. Consult with the particular ED/EA college early in the fall to determine their requirements.
A note for international students: Financial aid is extremely limited for non-US citizens. To qualify for federal, need-based financial aid, a student must be a legal U.S. citizen or eligible non-citizen. Discuss your needs with your college counselor and check with each of your college’s financial aid
Once the FAFSA form is submitted, the family will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). The SAR is a summary of the information entered on the FAFSA and it indicates how much the student’s family will be expected to pay for college the following year. This amount is called the Expected Family Contribution (EFC). Colleges, lending institutions, federal and state aid programs use this EFC when determining financial aid eligibility and in forming financial aid packages.
A family’s demonstrated financial aid need is the difference between a college’s comprehensive annual fees (room, board, tuition, books, personal expenses) and the Expected Family Contribution.
Some colleges will meet 100% of demonstrated need, others will not. Consult colleges to learn of their individual policies or review a list of 100% need-met colleges at www.cslf.com.
Families are encouraged to get an early estimate of their eligibility for federal student aid by completing the estimator at either www.FederalStudentAid.ed.gov or at www.finaid.org.
(Both of these websites also provide detailed information regarding all facets of federal student aid and free scholarship searches.)
All U.S. schools must post a Net Price Calculator (NPC) on their websites. This is a free tool where students can input info about their financial status and lifestyle and the Net Price calculator will provide an estimated cost of the school, including aid eligibility. That will allow students to compare estimated costs at several colleges before they actually apply and hear back from financial aid offices. The calculator works by using the full cost of the university, subtracts potential student aid (not including private scholarships, work study or loans), divides that number by the number of students who seek aid, and then computes the net price a student will need to pay to attend that particular college. NPCs match your info to a college's requirements for financial aid, showing you the difference between the full cost and what you'll really need to pay. You can check the cost for lots of different colleges in one place with the College Board's Net Price Calculator.
A new website called SimpleTuition.com is free and allows families to try to control college costs by revealing an estimated total monthly payment for all financial aid borrowing for students and parents after graduation- the goal is to bring transparency to college costs.
- How do we know which test is appropriate? (ACT or SAT)
- When should we start test prep?
- Where do we go for test prep?
- Where can we find the registration information and deadlines for the SAT, Subject Tests, or the ACT?
We recommend that students explore both tests through at least a practice diagnostic. There are a number of ways that students can do this. The most obvious is the PSAT, which all GFA students take in October of sophomore and junior year, as it gives them exposure to the SAT. Beyond that, some students might work with a reputable test prep company for a free SAT/ACT diagnostic (we arrange a fall diagnostic test date with the Princeton Review for juniors), while others may prefer to independently explore both tests through practice workbooks.
A good number of students will sit for a real ACT and a real SAT in the spring of their junior year and use the corresponding results to determine which test is the best fit. We don’t recommend that students sit for the ACT or SAT until after January of their junior year. Typically, students will take their first SAT in March and/or their first ACT in February or April.
Non-fee/low cost options:
- Khan Academy (for the SAT). The creators of the SAT have given Khan Academy exclusive free access and advice to build a personalized practice program for students.
- College Board website/official practice books (for the SAT and Subject Tests)
- ACT website/official practice books (for the ACT).
- Kaplan offers a low-cost online course for the ACT
Some families may elect to invest in private standardized test prep. In those cases, we recommend investigating a range of companies. Past GFA families have found success with Summit, Carnegie Pollak, Kaplan, and Princeton Review, among others. Treat each company as a candidate — call them ahead to learn about their packages/services, approach to individualized test prep, and history of results before committing to a company. As with everything in this process, it’s about finding the best fit for your child.
- Michael Pina, Director of College Guidance
- David Olins, Associate Director of College Guidance
- Rachel Boyer, Associate Director of College Guidance
- Jennifer Shairer, Office Manager and Testing Coordinator
Michael Pina has more than 15 years of experience in the world of college admissions. He joined GFA as Director of College Guidance in 2011 after serving as Co-Director of College Counseling at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, CA and, before that, Director of College Counseling at Worcester Academy in Worcester, MA and Associate Director of College Counseling at The Rivers School in Weston, MA. Prior to his work in independent schools, Michael served as Assistant Director of Admission and Coordinator of Multicultural Recruitment at his alma mater, Trinity College (CT). Throughout his career, Michael has held multiple leadership roles, including two stints as a NACAC Assembly Delegate, chair of multiple committees, and most recently, five years as a member of the Common Application Board of Directors. Michael holds a B.A. in Philosophy from Trinity College (CT) and a J.D. from Boston College Law School.
At my core, I seek to be the strongest advocate for a young person to pursue his or her dreams. For many seniors, deciding which colleges to apply to, and where to enroll is the first major decision that they lead their family in making. I am happy to be a partner and resource for the students and families.Michael Pina
David has more than 20 years of experience in college admissions and college guidance at both the university and independent school levels. David came to GFA in 2008 after seven years at Choate Rosemary Hall, where he had served as the Senior Associate Director of College Guidance. Prior to that, David worked in the admissions office at Tufts University, his alma mater. In his role as Assistant Director of Admissions, David also oversaw the campus overnight hosting program and was an academic adviser for groups of first-year students. At GFA, David coordinates the junior seminar program and is the junior class academic dean. He also coaches Varsity Girls Basketball and Junior Varsity Boys Tennis. David holds a B.A. from Tufts University and an M.A. from Wesleyan University.
Knowing each student individually helps me to find what inspires them, whether it is in academics, athletics, the arts, or outside activities. Forming this connection allows me to make college suggestions that truly fit their goals and will make sure that the transition from high school to college is successful.David Olins
Rachel joined GFA in 2017 after eleven years as the Director of College Guidance at Convent of the Sacred Heart in Greenwich. Prior to Sacred Heart, Rachel was a Senior Admissions Coordinator at her alma mater, Boston University, where she also worked during her undergraduate years. Rachel holds a B.A. in English and Art History and an Ed.M. in Policy, Planning, and Administration, both from Boston University.
The reward isn’t the acceptance letter — though of course those are nice. It is 10 years down the road when a student is doing work that they find meaningful and living their best possible life — whatever that might mean for them.Rachel Boyer
Jen joined the GFA community from the corporate world in 2006 and serves as Office Manager and Testing Coordinator in the GFA College Guidance Office. In her roles, Jen helps students to manage the nuances of the college application process and oversees the timely sending of student transcripts and recommendations to colleges. As Testing Coordinator, Jen manages the administration of the PSAT test each fall and AP exams each spring. Additionally, Jen serves as the point person for scheduling student and family meetings. Jen holds a B.A. from Albertus Magnus College and an M.S. from Southern Connecticut State University.
My favorite part is being able to interact with the students, get to know them individually and be a participant in each of their college processes. There are a lot of ups and downs throughout senior year and I am there to support them with advice, candy, and lots of confetti!Jen Shairer