Tara Bone, contributing writer

I RECENTLY FOUND myself on a college visit with my 17-year old senior, and all I could think was, “How is this possible?” It’s cliché, but honestly where did the time go? My oldest son’s senior year snuck up on me while I was driving carpool, juggling work and chores, and just cheering him on.

But it was here, and the college applications and “lasts” were hurling toward us. Actually, my son took it in stride; it was me who needed a few “mom cries.” Our family didn’t realize how overwhelming and emotional it would be. So for parents like me who wonder where to start, or for those who think, “I don’t have to worry about this yet,” here’s a guide to navigating the college application process … one day it’s going to sneak up on you!

Michelle Hunsaker of Mendon is a pro at helping students navigate the process. Of her 10 children, she has sent six of them to college since 2012 and has a senior applying to college this year. She’s also taught an ACT prep class to almost 400 students and has counseled many of them.

The biggest concerns most students have is how to get into their college of choice and how to pay for it. In response to this, Michelle encourages students to aim for scholarships that colleges give based on GPA and ACT scores because they are guaranteed scholarships based on set requirements.

“My simple advice over and over again is focus on your GPA and ACT,” Michelle said. “Those are the tickets to get you in and get you money. Even my most academically motivated seniors were not super motivated to apply to a bunch of scholarships or study excessively for the ACT. Plus, they are usually incredibly busy … so my motto became, ‘What investment will bring the greatest dividends? Maintenance of the GPA and raising the ACT’!”

There are other financial aid options available as well. Angela Wood is a counselor at Mountain Crest High School and says one of her number one tips for parents and students is to complete the FAFSA (Federal Application for Student Aid).

“You never know what you could qualify for and some scholarships want you to fill out the FAFSA before applying,” Angela said. “There are three things you could qualify for with the FAFSA: grants, loans, and work studies. You miss out on those opportunities if you do not complete the FAFSA.”

Angela always encourages students to get involved with clubs, leadership opportunities, and community service. These experiences help when applying for scholarships and there are hundreds available. She recommends the “Keys to Success” app for her students. She warns that families should never pay for scholarship services.

High school counselors provide a lot of resources, so take advantage of their help. Deadlines come quickly; some as early as November 1. Michelle says their family learned the hard way that there are no exceptions made for missing

Because there’s not a lot of time during the senior year to decide where to apply, Michelle and Angela recommend that students start thinking about it their junior year — or even sooner. Visit different college campuses on family trips and talk about your student’s dreams. One day it will be their turn to launch, and you’ll be ready to help them discover a world of adventure … but until that day, enjoy every moment together.