Every college application season, I have the privilege of playing two roles: as an alum of a highly selective liberal arts college, my alma mater dispatches me to conduct off-campus interviews of high school seniors. And, as a tutor and private college guidance counselor, I comment on many rough drafts of college application essays. Too often, though, I am troubled by what I see: many high school seniors are very personable, accomplished, qualified students who seem to have great struggles dealing with the college application process. They’re not getting help, and they’re not prepared.

They aren’t researching colleges, crafting applications or preparing for interviews with nearly as much effort and care as they obviously are taking with their high school careers. Their essays are grammatically correct —often great stories — but not about themselves. Their college lists include schools about which they know almost nothing. They haven’t studied the course catalogs or even talked to a current student or alum at places where they’re considering spending the next four years of their lives.

As the deadline draws near, fingers fly across the keyboard and toss off lines like “I just love your campus,” “The tour guide was wonderful,” or “My cousin went to your school and she said I should apply.” These are reasons to investigate a school, not reasons which convince admissions officers there’s a good fit between an applicant and their college. A solid GPA, strong SAT scores and great teacher recommendations aren’t an admissions ticket to a great school: they are necessary, but not sufficient.

So here is my advice to high school seniors: Applying to college is a lot like running a marathon. To win, you must finish. You can do everything right with nutrition, stretching, form and training. You can start well and run a great 25 miles, but still you must keep yourself together, focused, strong and steady for the last mile and 365 yards.

You must “make your case” to these readers and interviewers, these people who will assess you and make important decisions about you. Remember, they don’t know you. They didn’t watch you grow up. They don’t know what you’ve learned about life as you’ve helped your elderly neighbor, what type of music speaks to you, what subjects you’ve studied on your own, or what you really care about. Unless you spell it out in your essays and interview, no one will know what outrages you, what you look forward to contributing, what makes you tick. Why are you applying? You must have a very specific answer.

And that’s what it’s all about: conveying to the school who you are and why you’re sure there’s a match between you. (Between you and every single school to which you will apply.) That’s a big challenge for someone your age, so don’t be embarrassed if you need help with the process. Whatever you do, don’t toss away three and a half years of hard work and stagger across the finish line. Put your best foot forward and finish well.

Marjory Russakoff of Southwest Harbor is a private college guidance counselor and tutor. Her Web site is marjoryrussakoff.com.