EAST MANATEE -- Katie Lang, 16, a junior at Out-of-Door Academy in Lakewood Ranch and a Braden Woods resident, is just beginning to figure out where she wants to go to college in two years.
So are fellow juniors Eric Thodal-Ness and Sid Price of nearby SaintStephen's Episcopal School on Manatee Avenue West.
All three students and their families and an estimated 600 other students from all over the Tampa Bay area took advantage Sunday of a College Fair at Out-of-Door.
They all learned something -- colleges are carefully scrutinizing them.
Before hundreds of students crowded under a tent on the Out-of-Door campus to go one-on-one with 60 college representatives, they spent
time in smaller groups taking part in Out-of-Door's unique Tampa Bay Case Studies Program.
Students and parents were separated during the program to play the role of college admission officers trying to decide which one, among three fictitious candidates, should be admitted to a prestigious university. The exercise is led by real college admission officers, including Raul Fonts of Providence College and Carmen Perez of the University of Miami.
Many parents said they were enlightened by the exercise.
"What we learned is that there are a lot of kids with great academic profiles and the prestigious universities can't admit them all," said Sid's dad, The Rev. Steve Price of Harvest United Methodist Church in Lakewood Ranch.
Students and parents also learned academics trumps club membership, community volunteerism and sports in the poker game of college admission.
"We tell students whose grades are slipping because they are working a part-time job and in numerous clubs that maybe they should back down on some involvement and concentrate on academics," Fonts said.
College admission officers also stressed the importance of personal essays.
"We don't want to read an essay by a student on his or her sport," Perez said. "We already know about the sport from the records. What we want to know is who they are."
"I learned the essay is important because it can reveal the character of the student," said Einar Thodal-Ness, father of Eric, whose "dream" schools are Boston College and Wake Forest.
"I came into it thinking the selection process was just cold and came away understanding that there is a lot of give-and-take and discussion in the selection process," said Karen Kalfopoulos of St. Petersburg, whose junior daughter attends Canterbury School. "I also learned that, as parents, the colleges want us to be involved, want us to call with questions. I didn't realize how involved we could get in the selection process."
Perez told parents in her group to contact the regional admissions counselor for the college their student is interested in.
"People call me and say, 'Why wasn't my child accepted? She's done these amazing things,' " Perez said. "I reply, 'I never heard from you.' You have to advocate for your child."
There are so many college options it can become quite a process, said Lang, who was joined Sunday by her mother, Susan Lang, a kindergarten teacher at Tabernacle Christian School in Sarasota, and her father, Ted Lang, a retired Sarasota firefighter.
"I don't want it to be too big," Katie Lang said. "And not too cold there. I'm in student government. I may be interested in soccer because I play on the ODA team. I like science and anatomy. I have an interest in medicine."
How does she take all that and whittle things down?
"Every kid is different," Susan Lang said "Now, her brother, Zach, knew where he wanted to go immediately. We have relatives in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he wanted to go to the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul. Katie is just starting."
Sid Price conducted an interview with Zaire McCoy of Elon, a college of 5,200 students in North Carolina.
"She was very informative," Sid Price said of McCoy, who addressed his interest in internships in either engineering or business. "I don't have a dream school yet. I'm still compiling my list."
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7072 or contact him via Twitter @ RichardDymond.