An individual, student-centered approach to applying to college

Welcome to Deb Donley College Counseling.  Located in the northern suburbs of Chicago, DDCC hopes to help take the fear out of the college admission process.

With over twenty-five years of direct, individual college counseling experience, Deb knows the process inside and out, and will help students navigate the journey with ease, reducing anxiety with every step.



By Grade Level


The first year in high school should be spent acclimating to high school; as freshmen, students learn how to adjust to the increasing demands and independence of learning in their new high school setting.  The best way to prepare for college this year is for students to focus on their education: to learn to how they learn best, to develop a disciplined study habit, and to achieve at their optimum level in every class. As appropriate, students should enroll in the five traditional academic subjects including English, mathematics, lab science, social studies, and international language.  In addition, freshmen should begin to explore the world outside of themselves and engage in activities that they find rewarding.  These might be in athletics, employment, volunteer work, or the fine or performing arts.


The second year of high school is one where students continue to work on their intellectual skill development.  Students use the freshman year experience to evaluate what worked and what didn't work in and outside of the classroom to fine-tune their academic and extracurricular achievements.

Sophomores interested in pursuing specific college information might purchase a Fiske Guide to Colleges or a Yale Daily News Insider's Guide to Colleges and read about a college each week, annotating in the book in one color what they like and in another color what they dislike about what they read.  Reviewing this information every week with a parent provides the student and parent the chance to discuss what college life is like.  While these books are helpful, they have limitations; they only include some 240 schools and are based on campus interviews, so they may help assess how student life might fit the reader, but they are largely opinion-based.


This year is when the investigation process becomes more intense. In many cases, the school counselor helps students find colleges that might meet their interests.  If not, DDCC will help with that.  Students who have a preliminary list of colleges to investigate should, after reviewing the Fiske or Insider's Guide to assess the personal fit, next check out the websites of those colleges and universities, looking beyond the propaganda and photos into "Academics" and "Programs" to see what kinds of intellectual opportunities are offered.  This requires some significant digging through websites, and helps students determine the academic fit, from prospective career options to finding interesting majors and/or courses with which to fill their heads.  Only after this work is done should students and families decide if and when to visit colleges.

Of course, continuing dedication to developing a strong transcript of grades remains a priority.

Most college applicants need one letter or recommendation from a teacher.  It's important this year to develop solid, respectful relationships with teachers so that applicants will have teachers who like them and who can positively describe those candidates in any required letters of recommendation.  Only some 68 colleges and universities require more than one letter of recommendation.

This is also the year that students complete standardized testing such as the ACT and/or SAT.  An increasing number of colleges no longer require testing for admission; this list can be found at

It is possible to begin the work of the application - particularly if the student is considering some of the over 850 colleges and universities that use the Common Application - even before the list is finalized. Some of this work can be completed junior year or during the summer between the junior and senior year.


This is the year that student actually applies.  Many colleges have priority application deadlines of November first for candidates to be considered for scholarships or early notification of admission.

Unless applying under a binding early decision admission plan, students have until May first of their senior year to determine where they want to enroll - once their offers have arrived.  Students should wait to hear from all colleges under consideration before submitting an enrollment deposit, as that deposit serves to commit the student to attending that university.

If finances are a concern, the core financial document, the FAFSA, is available on October first of the senior year and should be completed at least by Thanksgiving to maximize a student's opportunity to obtain all the funding for which they may qualify.

It is possible to work ahead on most of the college application in the summer before the senior year - many colleges release applications in August, and some offer their essays even earlier in the summer.  Organization is key here.  The more work completed before the school  year begins, the better the student can focus on the academic demands and social excitement of senior year.

The Role of the Curriculum

The generally recommended college preparatory program of studies includes four years of English, and at least three years of sequential mathematics, three years of social studies, three years of lab sciences, and two years of the same foreign language.  Some colleges even designate that candidates should have three of the following four lab sciences: environmental science,biology, chemistry, or physics.  Gaining admission to a highly selective college is like applying for a job; you want to be the best candidate you can be to win the space.  For highly selective colleges, this means taking more than the minimum three or two years to demonstrate that you are taking advantage of the learning opportunities your high school has to offer.  You may want to leave high school with four years each of English, math, social studies, science, and language; in some cases you may graduate with five years of math or language. Researchers at ACT have found a direct correlation between the program of studies and an increase in ACT scores; taking these core courses provides an advantage when it comes to standardized testing. Whenever possible and appropriate, graduating from high school with four years of each of the five, traditional academic courses demonstrates your willingness to attain a background for college success.

Throughout high school, students should make choices about the rigor of their classes based on what courses appropriately challenge the individual; learning should be a bit like Goldilocks in that it should not be too easy or too hard, but appropriately challenging - just right. It is better to do well in a regular, college-prep program than to load up on AP courses and end up with grades you aren't proud of showing to a college admission office!

Remember that each student has additional aspects of life to consider when building schedules, such as time-consuming extracurricular activities, family obligations, their learning styles, and their individual postsecondary goals.  There are exceptions to every rule, and your school counselor and parents can assist students in making sound, appropriate choices.  This is about what is appropriate for the student, not about trying to please an unknown, admission officer.

College Friends

Individualized college counseling

Deb recognizes that the college admission process often induces anxiety and works to help families understand the realities behind it.  It is important to understand that the most selective colleges can be hard to get into because they are popular; selectivity typically has nothing to do with what goes on in the classroom. Generally, college admission becomes selective when colleges receive more applications than usual, often due to a winning sports team, the rumor that a celebrity is enrolling, or because of other media attention that increases their visibility.  

Other colleges use different approaches because their institutional mission determines how they will admit candidates. Some public universities must follow state-mandated admission standards, while other universities set admission standards that reflect a student's chance of success in the classroom. Those standards may include the overall grade point average, trends in classroom achievement, standardized (ACT or SAT) test scores, and may or may not accommodate the obstacles a student has encountered in life.

Deb works to provide candidates with an understanding of the way admission works for their colleges. The goal is to create a list of options with the academic programs and co-curricular life that meets the expectations each student sets for their college experience as well as having this list include schools the  student would be proud to attend. 



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