What happens when three regional college admissions groups unite for a superconference? What can an educational consultant learn from such an event?

The Southern Association for College Admission Counseling and its Rocky Mountain and Texas counterparts met in San Antonio in April.

Allow me to look back at the conference and share some of my insights with you.

About 1,800 educational consultants and admissions personnel attended the meetings and sessions. One cannot attend all the educational sessions; the choice is one session out of many at a given time. One word that stuck in my mind throughout the event was “early.”

It wasn’t long ago when this counselor started meeting with students in the middle of their junior year in high school. That appeared to be an appropriate time to start, and it worked.

But times have changed. Now students in their sophomore year are beginning the college admissions process. What has happened? A few of the sessions told the story.

The first session I attended was “Earlier Is Better — But Is Regular Too Late?” High school students must study their college list and determine the rate of acceptance under early-decision, early-action and regular-decision acceptances. One college accepted so many students on an early plan that there were not many openings left for regular-decision candidates.

Applying during the regular deadline doesn’t leave much room for additional acceptances. Often, the regular-deadline application is very competitive.

Every college is different, so knowing the statistics is most helpful.

Another important takeaway is “demonstrated interest.” Why should a college accept a student who qualifies but shows little or no interest in the school? After all, college is a business.

Of course, there are benefits to applying early, but there are also challenges. Financial aid is also a big factor in applying early.

Students who could just wait until they apply at a regular deadline are finding that some colleges want your application early in your senior year. For example, both the University of Georgia and Georgia Tech have a deadline around Oct. 15 for their early-decision applicants. That means you need to be ready.

The good news is that Georgia Tech is a Common Application school. Thus, submitting that application sets a student on the way for other Common App colleges. Suddenly, you are back to school and completing applications.

When beginning to fill out college applications, we need to look at the student’s life to that point. Schoolwork, tests and quizzes, projects, essays, and the like are expected.

But think about what the teenagers may go through at the same time when they are involved in the college process. Stress, sleepless nights, self-doubt, indecisiveness, and sometimes unrealistic goals and expectations. Those factors don’t make life easier.

The essay is the hardest part of the process.

The Common Application and Coalition Application made appearances at the conference. The Common App has almost 700 colleges on its list, and 250 of those colleges are test-optional.

For the student who doesn’t test well but has good grades, it is worthwhile to look at some of those test-optional colleges. At one time few public universities were Common App schools. Now, 130 public universities have joined.

Note that the Common App offers several training videos to help complete the application.

In the South, I have found that students are familiar with the large public institutions, and there are fine choices among those institutions. But are students also examining the smaller colleges?

After research into a student’s potential schools, large and smaller colleges often remain on the list. It isn’t rare for a student to tell me after visiting a smaller college, “Wow, I didn’t know that such colleges exist.” At times, the student matriculates at that smaller school.

The sticker price at some smaller colleges is just that: a sticker price. Often there are good financial packages. What about the retention rates and the graduate rates? The debt with which one could leave college after graduation?

The Associated Colleges of the South stated in one study that students pay less than 60 percent of the published price of tuition and fees. But who gets the headlines? Athletic teams, especially football and basketball. As this writer asks students, “When you interview with an employer or graduate school, will their emphasis be on the football team or you?”

One article I wrote for the Atlanta Jewish Times highlighted the gap year. Yes, there was a session on that matter.

Often, parents or students feel that a gap year will mean that afterward the student will not want to attend college or the year is a wasted expense. Maybe your skills will get rusty. But research shows that those who go on a gap year have good graduate rates, have fewer discipline problems in college and don’t have as many emotional issues.

On average, the gap-year students perform at higher levels than the no-gap-year students. And the gap-year freshman averages are better than predicted. Yes, some colleges have prediction rates for admitted students.

The college fair at the conference had a slot of only 1½ hours with hundreds of colleges staffing tables to talk to counselors about their schools. That is certainly enough colleges to converse with at one event.

Well, I did get at least 98 business cards from the exhibitors, meaning that I have connections with more admissions personnel when I need to talk to them about their school or about students. How did I accomplish that feat? Attend enough college conferences, and you learn how to navigate the process for the benefit of yourself and your clients.

Obviously, the conference had many sessions. But you can choose only what you think may be the most applicable. In this case, the writer shared only information that should interest you.

Choosing colleges to apply to is a serious business for a student and family. One needs to schedule time, often in a busy high school schedule, to focus on the various aspects of the college admissions process.

When the Free Application for Federal Student Aid changed its opening date for seniors to October from January, it was one strong incentive for students to start the college process earlier than ever before.

Mark L. Fisher is a college and career consultant at Fisher Educational Consultants and a consultant for the College Planning Institute.