Read an Excerpt
Getting into College
A Guide for Students and Parents
By Frank C. Leana
Hill and WangCopyright © 1990 Frank C. Leana
All rights reserved.
Concerns about College
I am standing in the lunch line at a private day school on a professional visit. Next to me, heaping hot dogs onto their trays, two seventh-grade boys in dapper navy blazers and repp ties engage in obvious camaraderie. One boy turns to the other and asks, "Alex, where do you want to go to college?" "Princeton," replies Alex, his expression dimming as the conversation turns serious. "Oh," responds Ted, "me, too! I guess that means we can be friends for about another two years before we become competitors."
* * *
Returning from her doctor's office, where she has heard the good news, an excited mother-to-be reaches for the telephone to dial the office of the dean of admissions at an Ivy League university. "Where should we enroll our son or daughter in preschool so that admission to your college will be guaranteed?" she asks.
* * *
A young urban couple sits at the table with their six-year-old daughter. Tomorrow Mindy will face her interviewer at a highly selective, prestigious private school known for its outstanding college placement record over the years. In front of Mindy is a bowl of what looks like pasta. The couple has heard that one typical question for admission into first grade is "What is your favorite vegetable?" Fearful that Mindy will answer with a response as mundane as corn or potatoes, her parents are introducing her to the more exotic "spaghetti squash."
* * *
Concern about getting children into college begins in some families at the time their children are born, or even before, as in one of the cases above. Such hopes for opportunity in the years ahead are inherent in the American Dream, and a college diploma is thought to lead to personal and professional success. College is the final step of late adolescence of an elaborate plan, sometimes unspoken but dreamed, that begins years earlier. Is it any wonder that the application process becomes so highly charged with emotions ranging from excitement to anxiety and disappointment?
I suggest that instead of thinking about where you go to college as the most important decision of your life, you think of it as one very important decision. It may well be, for some of you, the biggest decision you have yet had to make about your future. But, remember, family, teachers, counselors, and professionals exist who can help you to make the best decisions about college. You do not have to make the journey alone.
With this view in mind, you as a family will want to begin planning after eighth grade. Being aware of what goes into a college application and of what colleges look for in deciding to admit or deny a candidate is one way to think about how you can get the most out of your high school years. No student should plan the high school experience merely to "look good" to colleges. However, thoughtful consideration about how to develop your academic and extracurricular interests and to strengthen your personal values through commitment to activities and to others does enrich the high school years and, at the same time, prepares you to succeed in the college application process.CHAPTER 2
The Advantage of Early Planning
When should a family begin thinking about college for their son or daughter? The student who begins to think about college in the fall of senior year is too late to do much to alter the range of colleges that will admit him. Getting ready for college actually begins before the eleventh or twelfth years of school. It begins with a student's choice of courses and academic performance in the ninth grade. Partly because of high costs and partly because of the ever-increasing significance of a college education, parents are asking earlier how they can help their child to plan ahead to get the most out of the high school experience. Students who are successful and do well in high school will emerge from the educational process not only well adjusted but more likely to succeed in the college placement process because they know who they are and can begin to communicate their security to others. How the child learns and grows and changes is increasingly becoming as important to colleges as where or what he or she has studied. A family needs to ask what the likelihood is that given a certain school environment their child will be encouraged to develop a commitment to, and ideally a love of, learning, a social conscience, a solid set of moral and ethical values, and an awareness of the larger world around them. Which is the right curriculum to choose, balanced with the appropriate choices of Honors and Advanced Placement courses, electives, and traditional required offerings such as foreign language and calculus that will not only educate in a broad and deep way but will encourage growth in new fields as well? What we the parents as well as colleges will want to know down the road is, have the students been able to take advantage of the opportunities available to them and have they grown to reach beyond themselves to address the lives of others through leadership and public service?
SELECTING COURSES WITH COLLEGE IN MIND
The first step in the college application process is to develop your individual strengths in your high school academic subjects, extra-curricular interests, and personal values. Colleges will ask what you personally have made of your opportunities and resources. Everyone's circumstances are different, but one fact is universally true: students who explore and come to know their strengths are more likely to develop them in college than students who do not engage in such self-evaluation.
There is a big difference between anxiety and pressure of the kind expressed in the three anecdotes that introduce the section "Concerns about College" and the healthy concern that comes from looking ahead and getting ready to apply to college in the senior year. Anxiety and thoughtless ambition can turn members of a family into basket cases. The strength that comes from healthy, constructive long-range planning will put you in the best possible position to enter the college of your choice.
Getting into college begins with the courses you select for ninth grade. When a college admissions committee reviews your application, it will look at your high school transcript, which lists the courses you have taken and the final grade you have received in each. Some high schools record trimester or semester grades.
Colleges place considerable importance on your junior year because it is the last full academic year before you apply that they can evaluate. They look to see that you have maintained or strengthened your performance from ninth grade on. The first half of senior year is also taken into consideration. In combination, the junior year and the first part of senior year quite accurately predict your capacity for independent work and success in your freshman year of college.
The most effective applications are those that demonstrate continuity of course selection, some variety among those selections, and follow-through. Continuity means selecting courses that follow a sequence: for instance, algebra, geometry, pre-calculus, and calculus; or biology, chemistry, physics, and advanced physics. You need to exhibit your willingness to pursue the study of a subject to the highest level offered at your high school at which you can do well. Sequential courses are especially important for specific career preparation in college; for example, a premed student will need a strong background in math and science. At most colleges you will be required to declare a major concentration after sophomore year. Sequences in high school afford you the opportunity to delve deeply into a subject in much the same way as you will do in college.
Variety means experimenting with some courses outside of the traditional core of offerings, such as music appreciation, art history, theater, or astronomy. It is a mistake to specialize too quickly. Exploring courses outside your primary academic interest demonstrates your openness to new intellectual experiences. In college you will have many opportunities to reach out to a new subject such as anthropology or Swahili. If you would like to try a course in economics but are worried that your result might hurt your overall grade point average, consider a Pass/Fail option offered for electives at some high schools or perhaps an Audit, where you sit in on classes and do all of the assignments but do not receive a grade. Such options should be in addition to, not a substitute for, a graded normal course load. Any course such as Ceramics, Driver's Education, or Health should also complement but not be in lieu of traditional academic offerings.
Follow-through means taking your interest beyond the textbook and the classroom to involvement in a related extracurricular activity. If you are enrolled in a theater course, consider taking on even a small part in the school production. If you enjoy writing, join the staff of the school newspaper or the literary magazine. Put your skill in photography to use as yearbook photographer, or your interest in economics to the test by joining the business staff of a school organization. Colleges respond positively when you demonstrate your capacity to apply what you have learned to school and community life.
The outline here is a flexible curriculum plan for grades nine through twelve. Notice that math, science, and a foreign language are ideally taken through a three- or four-year sequence, as competitive colleges report an increase in their applicants' study of foreign languages, laboratory sciences, and computer science courses.
Computer science should not be viewed as a substitute for courses in pure mathematics, but it would be better to have taken an elective in computer science than no course in the quantitative subjects. Many colleges, such as Carnegie-Mellon or Dartmouth, require of all freshmen a working knowledge of computers.
The course plan outline will help you avoid any regret you might feel as a junior for what you haven't tried or accomplished. There is no point in regretting your omissions or mistakes; take positive action in the time that is left and make senior year count heavily.
High school should not be viewed merely as a stepping-stone to college, but rather as a rich developmental stage of your life. It is a time for intellectual growth, social maturation, and personal realization. Although colleges look for leaders and scholars, they want students who have learned to enjoy what they do, whose involvements have enriched their lives and their value systems.
Show in your application that you think about what you do. Underscore strengths and accomplishments by using detail. Put your achievements and values forward in the best yet honest light. For instance, it is not sufficient to mention that you are editor or sports writer on the school newspaper. Give a sense of how frequently the paper comes out and of how important the club or organization is at your school. You should not assume that colleges will necessarily know that being elected to an office in a particular organization at your school is a big deal. You need to tell them if it is.
Colleges are wary of students who cannot set priorities in high school, who spread themselves too thin. In the independent atmosphere of college, you will need to organize your time effectively and show good judgment in the choices you make.
Do not overload your schedule to look impressive. Choose courses carefully and do your best in them. It makes no sense to choose a course at an Advanced or Advanced Placement level if you cannot do well. You need to be competent in the course and be able to meet its demands. And keep in mind that courses with labs, studio, and practice hours will call for even more hours of your time.
Students frequently wonder if it is more advisable to take fewer courses and get more A's and B's or to take more courses and perhaps get lower grades. Of course, there are many students who can take a heavy load of rigorous courses and get A's. However, you must assess realistically your own capacity to do your best work with a particular selection of courses. Each college applicant is evaluated according to what he or she has made of his or her particular opportunity. In a time when so much has been made of SAT scores and grade point averages, it should be viewed as a sign of hope that individual differences still matter.
Developing Extracurricular Interests
Some seniors take a look at the section of an application where they are asked to list their activities and turn pale. They worry that they do not have an impressive list. However, colleges believe that it is more important to make a commitment to a few activities and do them well than to spread yourself too thin. Persistence in an activity has been shown to lead to both academic and social success in college. Many of the essay and interview questions you will be asked to answer will probe to see if your involvements and commitments have helped you to develop a system of personal values. For instance, an essay topic used by many colleges asks you to discuss your most significant extracurricular activity or interest and its influence on you.
Colleges are not impressed by a laundry list of activities. Rather, they want to learn how you have made a difference to a team or organization and how being a part of an activity has led to your development and your self-understanding.
Summer Activities and Alternatives
TRAVEL AND STUDY
Colleges are interested in how you have used your time. Once you have selected an academic program that is appropriately demanding and made choices about what activities and outside-of-school interests you want to pursue, you will need to think about a resourceful use of summer vacations.
Junkets across Europe or Australia with your parents or a pack of teens do not in themselves impress college admissions deans. First of all, anyone with the money can sign up and participate. There is little evidence of resourcefulness in simply enjoying the sights. While there is no one activity in itself that registers a high rating, activities that call for independence, exploration of talents and interests, the formal study of subjects or a culture and language, assistance to others as a teacher or counselor on a volunteer basis, or sticking to an old-fashioned job for the first time do command attention.
The travel programs that increase your admission chances combine some element of cultural exposure or academic study with travel. The summer after junior year might be an ideal time to pursue one of these programs.
What follow are some well-known commercial organizations that sponsor summer travel and study programs. The list is by no means exhaustive but gives an idea of the variety available.
American Institute for Foreign Studies
102 Greenwich Avenue
Greenwich, Connecticut 06830
These summer study programs are carefully planned at well-known European and Asian universities. They range from three to twelve weeks in length. There are separate high school divisions. Cost runs between approximately $2,000 and $4,000, depending on the cost of transportation and the length of the program.
The Experiment in International Living
Putney, Vermont 05346
This program offers summer and semester homestays for high school students, some of which include attendance at a local school abroad. Students live with native prescreened families to pursue particular aspects of a culture.
Academic Study Abroad
400 Main Street
Armonk, New York 10504
This organization offers educational travel programs that immerse American high school students in a learning environment, such as St. Clare's in Oxford; a London arts program where students work side by side with professionals in theater studio art, creative writing, architecture, and film and television studies; language study and a three-week homestay with a French family; a British culture and society program; and language programs in Spain, Germany, and Italy.
Excerpted from Getting into College by Frank C. Leana. Copyright © 1990 Frank C. Leana. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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