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This all-in-one guide shows parents and students how to select, apply to, get accepted by, and pay for college, from the experts at America's #1 educational consulting firm.
The rules of college admissions have changed, and the competition today is tougher than ever. It's no longer enough to fill out a few applications and wish for the best. Students not only need to excel, they also need to make their applications stand out from the crowd. Parents often wish they had a personal...
This all-in-one guide shows parents and students how to select, apply to, get accepted by, and pay for college, from the experts at America's #1 educational consulting firm.
The rules of college admissions have changed, and the competition today is tougher than ever. It's no longer enough to fill out a few applications and wish for the best. Students not only need to excel, they also need to make their applications stand out from the crowd. Parents often wish they had a personal coach to help their children navigate the process. The New Rules of College Admissions is like having your own team of expert advisers guiding you every step of the way. Each chapter is written by a former admissions officer from top universities — including Yale, Columbia, and Northwestern — and each chapter covers topics to help you
Create a list of the "best fit" colleges
Develop a strategy for standardized tests
Prepare for and ace the interview
Navigate financial aid options
and much more. Your family's journey to college admissions success begins now. The New Rules of College Admissions will help simplify today's complex college admissions process and lead to an acceptance letter from the college of your dreams.
The High School Experience
Expert Coach: Karen Crowley, Former Admissions Officer, University of Pennsylvania
What is the one thing virtually every college applicant has in common?
Every student is different, but the experience of ninth through twelfth grade is the common denominator among all college applications. The good news is that this portion of the college application process is familiar to you already. You have guided your child through school since kindergarten, so you no doubt have plenty of experience helping your child make decisions about which classes and activities he should sign up for. Now it's time to approach those same types of decisions from the perspective of a college admissions officer.
What are college admissions officers looking for when it comes to a student's high school experience? They want to see a young adult with some understanding of what he's good at, how he applies himself, what he is dedicated to, and how others perceive him. To determine these answers, they assess academics, extracurricular activities, and a student's reputation. In this chapter I will share specific success strategies to help you and your child make the best choices in each of these three areas.
Rules to Remember in This Chapter
Report cards matter most. Academics are the most important factor to admissions officers. Pay close attention to your child's course selection and grades through every year of high school.
Colleges like students with passion and commitment. The best applicants demonstrate unique extracurricular pursuits that involve leadership, personal growth, and genuine enjoyment and enthusiasm.
Reputation counts. Colleges seek out the opinions of teachers and administrators when assessing a student. Having a reputation as a good school citizen can tip the scales in favor of your child's application.
Make no mistake about it: academics are the most important factor to admissions officers when making a final admissions decision.
Despite all the tips and strategies you're likely to hear about essays, interviews, teacher recommendations, and other parts of the college application, academics are, bar none, the most important piece of a student's profile. If admissions officers believe that an applicant cannot meet the academic challenge at a particular college, that child will not be admitted. After all, we are talking about a student at one school applying to become a student at another school. All other aspects of the application process are certainly important, but none influences the yes or no decision as much as the admissions officer's complete academic analysis. The components of that analysis, which will be explored in detail in this chapter, include:
Academic Picture. What is the "at-a-glance" view of the student's academic track record? What are the exact, "unweighted" grades (number of As, Bs, Cs, et cetera) each year? What level of courses (honors, advanced placement, et cetera) has the student taken? What curriculum choices has the student made? What is the yearly GPA (grade point average) and the combined GPA of freshman, sophomore, and junior years?
Context. In looking at a student's transcript, what courses does the particular high school offer and how did this student fare within the given academic environment? Also, are there any extenuating circumstances in the student's life to consider — such as a divorce, death of a family member, or a learning disability — that may have affected academic performance?
Profile. When the admissions officer evaluates the above factors, what is the overall impression of the student? For instance, "This is a smart, ambitious scientist who struggles with English composition," or "This is a girl with great fluency in foreign languages who continues to plug away in increasingly difficult math classes even though it hurts her GPA," or "This is a boy who struggled his freshman year but really applied himself and improved his grades over time." The profile is a more complex — and forgiving — academic representation of a student than the straight numbers of a GPA.
The better you understand what admissions officers are looking for in your child's high school academic record, the better you can help your child make decisions about what courses to take, what grades to strive for, and what trade-offs might be beneficial.
Academic Course Selection
It is essential to become familiar with the academic options at your child's school as soon as possible. Conscientious course selection is vital preparation for the college admissions process. Using the strategies below, you should review the course catalogue with your child before each school year to help plan what classes he would like to take and how that fits into his college — and life — aspirations. It is never too early to be planning for each year's slate of classes, so get a copy of the course catalogue as soon as possible. If your child is in ninth or tenth grade, you can follow all of the guidelines below. If your child is in eleventh or twelfth grade, don't agonize about choices your child has already made, but do your best to help maximize remaining course selections.
Helping choose the best courses each semester requires an ongoing conversation with your child, one that may develop and change dramatically throughout high school. Your overall goal should be to have a child who is happy, challenged, and achieving the best grades possible. To help guide you, here are my answers to parents' most frequently asked questions about course selection and, its soul mate, GPA:
Q: What courses are absolutely essential year by year?
A: Every college-bound student must enroll in each of the five "academic solids," for at least the first two years of high school. The five solids are:
English. English is English. You've got to have it.
Social Science History. This is also a classic standard.
Mathematics. Almost any college degree will require math, so colleges are more comfortable with kids who will make it easily through college math courses. Four years of math is highly recommended. Note that "traditional" math is preferred over specialized math, so encourage your child to take geometry rather than business math.
Science, preferably with lab. Lab science requires critical thought, which colleges believe is needed. Three to four years of science is preferable, and biology, chemistry, and physics are preferred. Of course, your daughter should not drop science if she is planning to be premed!
Foreign Language. Foreign language courses with literature study are recommended over conversation when there is an option.
Most colleges prefer to see a student enroll in all five academic solids each year of high school. At the least, they favor students with four years of English and math and three years of a foreign language and science. Eleventh and twelfth graders have the most leeway when it comes to taking all five academic solids. After careful consideration and consultation with an academic adviser or guidance counselor, upperclassmen may choose to drop an academic solid in favor of another class related to personal interests or future goals. For instance, a boy with a flair for creative writing and a summer internship to study poetry in Europe may opt to take an additional foreign language course in lieu of AP physics during his senior year. A girl who is planning to go into engineering may drop Spanish class after junior year in order to take an additional math class or science lab.
Q: How do colleges compare GPAs from school to school when students take various course loads and different schools have different grading systems?
A: What you see on your child's high school transcript is not necessarily how colleges will see that transcript. Colleges use their own proprietary weighting system for high school grades. These probably do not coincide with your high school's system.
The most common way colleges approach this is by recalculating a student's GPA from ninth to eleventh grade based solely on his five academic solids. Most schools use a three-year cumulative average and then let the senior year stand alone as a final factor.
To compare students regardless of grading systems, admissions officers will most likely recalculate the five core subjects using a four-point, unweighted scale. In such a scale, an A = 4, a B = 3, and so on. (An "unweighted" GPA is calculated based on the actual grade in each class, regardless of the level of the class. A "weighted" GPA takes into consideration both the class level and the student's grade.)
What happens after an admissions officer calculates an unweighted GPA? He then goes course by course and gives his own weighting to the courses based on the difficulty level of each. Sometimes this is done in his head and sometimes in writing based on a college's very specific point system. Unfortunately, there is no way to know how each school approaches this process, but it's important to know that they do not take your child's high school transcript at face value.
Q: Is it better for my child to take easier courses and get As, or take harder courses (such as AP classes) and get Bs?
A: The answer to this question greatly depends on the college or university in question.
As a general rule, admissions officers look favorably upon the student who challenges himself academically rather than take an easy A. When it comes to helping your child decide which courses to take and at what level of difficulty, realistically assess what each course will add to the student's overall transcript and application in light of the level of schools he wants to attend.
If your child is applying to Yale, Harvard, Stanford, or other highly selective schools, you probably won't be surprised to learn that your child has to take AP classes and get As. At these schools, most candidates will have achieved stellar grades in the most challenging classes.
On the other hand, schools admitting greater than 50 percent of their applicants, such as Indiana University, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Arizona, are likely to accept a weaker course load, but they still look for a consistent record of hard work, achievement, and improvement of grades over time.
Challenge, rigor, and high hopes for college acceptance are important, but you must also be realistic when assessing your child's course selection and subsequent GPA. You don't want to set your child up for mediocre grades or even failure. If a student's grade in a particular course goes down an entire mark (say, from a B to a C, as opposed to a B to a B-), that's a signal that his course load is probably too difficult. It is always better to be a B student than a C student, regardless of curriculum. When in doubt, talk to your child's academic advisers when deciding what course levels your child should take.
Q: What elective courses look best to colleges? And do elective course grades matter? A: Since school today is not just about the three Rs of reading, 'riting and 'rithmetic, your child also has elective courses to consider. What do college admissions officers look for when evaluating performance in these subjects? I like to think of electives as rounding out a student's picture. The selection of electives and the student's grades in those courses can help to reinforce the application's overall theme. For instance, if a girl is a theater junkie and writes her college essay on CATS, I would expect to see that she has theater, choir, or dance in her course load and she has performed well in these electives.
If your child is less focused and wants to experiment with electives and other nonacademic courses, there is nothing wrong with showing a genuine curiosity and trying a variety of classes, from computer science to studio art. Again, this helps tell a story. Perhaps your son is a Renaissance man who wants to combine his interests in science, music, and technology. No matter what the story, it's best to demonstrate good grades in elective courses. But keep in mind that the grades in these electives are not as important as the grades in the five core subjects. In other words, an A in art is nice, but don't expect your kid to get into MIT with an A in art and a B in chemistry. However — and this is a strong warning — poor grades in elective classes are a red flag to admissions officers. They imply a negative attitude and work ethic, and they can change an admissions officer's feelings about an applicant. Bad grades in gym class raise concerns that a kid with otherwise stellar grades is not really the all-around winner he appeared to be.
The High School Transcript
Have you ever seen your child's high school transcript — not the report card, but the official transcript? If you are like most parents, the answer is probably no. I am often surprised to learn that many families have never seen this important document, yet they eagerly instruct guidance counselors to send it directly to colleges! Often, families, and even the students themselves, don't know what the transcript looks like or what information appears on it.
It is important to request, study, and carefully proofread your child's high school transcript prior to sending it to an admissions office at any college or university. The more you know about your child's transcript, the better you will understand what admissions officers will see when getting to know your child and his high school. Here are some questions to answer about the transcript:
Does the transcript show absences and tardies?
Are state or national tests reported?
Are final exam grades reported?
Are every semester's grades reported or just final grades?
Is there a grade distribution or class rank printed right on the transcript?
How is the grade point average calculated?
Knowledge is power when it comes to the contents of your child's transcript. If you feel that the appearance of any of the above information could negatively impact your child's application, then you can do something about it sooner rather than later. For instance, a large number of absences and tardies can cause an admissions officer to question a child's motivation. If your son has a lot of absences his sophomore year, you may want to address the reasons for the absences elsewhere in the application, such as in a note from a guidance counselor or a mention in a teacher recommendation. If he was absent because of an illness like mono, colleges should know he wasn't just slacking off.
When it comes to any questionable aspect of your child's high school record — or any other problematic issue on his college applications — it's best to have a guidance counselor or teacher address it, rather than the parent or applicant. When parents and students try to make excuses for something negative on a child's application, admissions officers are pretty skeptical and rarely believe the complaint is unbiased. A third-party explanation is much more credible, so talk to your child's guidance counselor if you feel any information needs to be explained.
Also be aware that you might even find a factual error, either in a grade reported or even an actual class listed. This is another good reason to review your child's transcript before it gets into the hands of an admissions officer. If you do discover an error, report it to your school's guidance office and ask how to follow the procedure to fix it. If an actual grade is incorrect, be as relentless as you need to be to make sure the transcript is accurate. Some high schools do not like to make changes, but it is crucial that any inaccuracies are corrected before the transcript is distributed.
Why is it so important to have an accurate high school transcript? At a selective school, there is no single piece of the application that admissions officers spend more time with than the high school transcript. They read it, analyze it, and study it, which means that you should too. This is often the first document an admissions officer reviews, and it influences how she sees everything else in a student's file. I have found that many college applicants spend hours proofreading and agonizing over every other element of their application, yet have never studied the transcript to ensure that it is accurate. Don't make this mistake.
Admissions officers look at the transcript to assess a student's overall performance, grade level performance, individual subject performance, and to examine the rigor of a student's elected courses. These elements are each evaluated within the context of what a particular high school offers.
Let's go inside the mind of the admissions officer to learn how she is reading your child's transcript. By understanding the ways an admissions officer evaluates a transcript, you can perform the same critical assessment.
1. How did this student do compared to other kids at the same high school?
If older students from the same high school have applied to the college where your child is applying (which is usually the case), then it's a good bet that the admissions officers are familiar with your child's high school and will have some context with which to evaluate his performance. How do they remember all of the high schools across the country? Typically, colleges and universities keep records about the students they admit from a given high school, and admissions officers will be familiar with the academic profile a "competitive" student should maintain within a particular school. In other words, it is likely that the admissions officer will know, based on prior experience with your child's school, whether he is really a contender.
An admissions officer's personal experience and files are then confirmed by an official document called the High School Profile. Almost all high schools in the United States, and many throughout the world, produce this document on an annual basis and make it available to colleges. The High School Profile acts as a cheat sheet to help admissions officers quickly familiarize themselves with the high school and its classes. The profile will note many things, typically including, but not limited to:
information on community, setting, and faculty;
graduating class and school size;
comparative data on GPA distribution;
course options including level of difficulty and weight;
postsecondary options for graduating seniors, including number attending college (listing most popular choices), number of seniors entering the military, number of seniors entering the work force.
It is critical to familiarize yourself with this public document so you can get the most objective picture of your child's achievements and choices within the context of your particular school. You can request a copy of the High School Profile from the guidance office. But remember that it is the school's job — not yours — to help college admissions offices best understand the school and the context in which students are performing.
If you are concerned about your school's profile document, or your child attends a nontraditional school such as a charter school that you fear may not be on the radar screen of colleges, set up an appointment with your child's guidance office to share your concerns. Guidance counselors will work with you to make sure colleges receive the information they need to assess your child's academic record.
Do not attempt to share your opinion about your child's High School Profile with a college admissions office. Writing a letter or calling an admissions office to say, "Earning a B average at my son Adam's school is like an A average at another school" will irritate busy admissions officers and will not do Adam any favors. Take time to review and understand the High School Profile, but that's all. Again, all concerns should be discussed with your high school guidance office rather than directly with the college.
2. What is the student's personal academic track record?
In other words, is this student's stock on the rise or the decline? In my experience, a weak freshman year is generally forgiven (it's the tail end of puberty, after all), while a poor junior or senior year isn't. Obviously admissions officers favor consistently strong students, but next best are students who steadily improved their performance and pursued increasingly tougher classes throughout high school. However, as discussed above, a challenging course load should not be undertaken at the expense of good grades.
New Rule of College Admissions: Twelfth Grade Matters — A Lot
Some of us may remember slacking off during our own senior years, but twelfth-grade performance has become increasingly important. This is because applicant pools have grown larger and more competitive. Strong grades during the first half of senior year are critical in supporting your child's college applications. Admissions officers at schools of all levels believe that senior year is a good predictor of college academic performance. Few admissions officers reach a conclusion regarding an early decision or early action candidate without these marks, and they almost always evaluate the first-half twelfth-grade marks before admitting a regular decision candidate.
3. How has this student performed in each subject area as a whole?
This part of the transcript review can be helpful for a student who has either a distinct weakness or a distinct strength. For example, a recent immigrant who has just learned English may look like a weak candidate based on overall GPA. However, after careful assessment, the admissions officer may note that weak English grades during freshman and sophomore year are pulling down the overall average. But as a potential engineering student, the candidate will take only limited college English courses. The admissions officer may ultimately favor the student for his highly impressive science and math grades in advanced courses. Furthermore, if the English grades are improving annually, this will help the candidate's case and boost the admissions officer's confidence in his future academic success. This admissions officer would read the remaining file for further evidence that the language skills are sufficient to do well at the school.
The reverse may be true for a native speaker who wants to study creative writing and foreign languages. Let's say this student elected to take two foreign languages throughout high school and earned excellent grades in both. He also performed well in the required and elective English classes. However, the math grades were consistently weaker. In this case, the admissions officer might look for an outstanding personal statement, combined with other evidence that supports a distinct talent and interest.
Don't Panic! What if my child's grades are inconsistent or have gone downhill?
What can you do if your child does not have stellar grades across the board or has not improved over time? If this is the case in your family, here are four potential strategies:
1. If you believe your son really is a good student, but just hasn't "applied himself," you can think especially carefully about teachers who will help portray your child as a good student in a letter of recommendation.
2. If your daughter had poor grades in one subject but has positive academic attributes and a decent or better relationship with the teacher, you can ask that particular teacher to write a recommendation about your daughter's positive attitude, participation in class, tenacity, or desire to challenge herself.
3. Ask your child's guidance counselor to directly address the academic record in his letter and work on a story in which the academic record is portrayed in the context of other, more positive achievements.
4. Emphasize other achievements in the application, to the extent that they overshadow the poor grades. For example, demonstrate incredible achievement in an extracurricular activity through short-answer essays or the personal statement. This is not easy to pull off, but it is possible.
In all of the above strategies, make sure your student does not overtly attempt to "excuse away" poor grades in the personal statement or a separate letter. This almost always sounds like a whiny excuse to admissions officers and does not help your child's cause.
Analyze and then build upon your child's personal qualities and interests to create a powerful extracurricular profile.
It's rare for a student to be accepted to a highly selective college on brainpower alone. A strong extracurricular profile is also important. It aids students, parents, administrators, and college admissions officers alike in understanding a child as a whole person. Here are some specific benefits related to extracurricular activities:
Students develop nonacademic skills, earn a sense of accomplishment, and meet peers and mentors outside of class. A student might forge a bond with faculty members, discover something he's good at, or learn how to handle responsibility. All of these benefits will also help during the college application process when it comes to letters of recommendation, essay topics, and interview discussions.
Parents get assurance that their children are productive after school and learning life skills during their youth. Understanding your child's natural interests also helps you guide him through the college selection and application process.
School administrators benefit from an involved and engaged student body. They are also better able to advise students on their future pursuits based on knowledge of their nonacademic interests.
Admissions officers can forecast how the applicant may participate on campus to help make the college a more interesting place.
Students can also showcase certain strengths or interests with extracurricular activities. For example, a student might build upon an interest in writing by editing the school newspaper. A girl might demonstrate real scientific ingenuity with a powerful research project. A boy could showcase his athletic abilities through participation in junior varsity and varsity athletics. You will find multiple examples of various students' extracurricular profiles on the following pages. As you read through, keep in mind the concept of your child's "theme," which we will discuss in depth in chapter 5. The application theme is a clear and consistent description of a student that is demonstrated and reiterated through the application, including the extracurricular profile. The theme, which is unique to each child, helps focus the admissions officer on the key points about your child that will help him get accepted.
Each child's extracurricular profile is unique, but there are many tactics you can use to make sure your child's extracurricular story fits with his overall theme and helps build a strong college application.
New Rule of College Admissions: The Myth of the Well-Rounded Applicant
Being "well-rounded" is no longer a ticket to Harvard. While admissions officers are looking to create a well-rounded student body overall, they are less and less impressed by kids who are interested in many diverse areas. When all else is equal, a child with a deep interest and talent in one area will get in before a well-rounded candidate.
Don't get me wrong; well-roundedness isn't bad. If your child is an athlete, scholar, musician, and volunteer, then he will do well in the college admissions process. But if a child shows a discernible weakness — for example, he is a stellar athlete and musician who gets poor grades in several subjects — then his "well-roundedness" loses its luster. Well-rounded students need something extra to stand out, such as a strong leadership position or award in one area.
This is where extracurricular activities take on additional importance. If your daughter is strong in science and wants to be a veterinarian someday, then her application will be even stronger if she spends her summers working in a lab or volunteers at an animal shelter.
Using Your Community to Find Unique Activities
When most parents think about extracurriculars, they focus on activities offered by their child's high school. Think beyond that world. One of the best things you can do to help your child develop a unique extracurricular profile is to start thinking creatively and doing research to find activities outside of the school system to match your child's interests. Your community no doubt has hundreds of opportunities waiting to be discovered. One common technique career counselors use to help job seekers find networking opportunities is to create a list of every single person they know and the activities they are involved with. You can use this same technique when trying to find challenging after-school and summer experiences for your child.
The goal of pursuing activities outside of the school environment is to help your child challenge himself and go beyond the norm of high school-related extracurriculars. While thousands of kids' applications will include activities like football, student council, debate team, and other school-sponsored clubs, your child can stand out by doing something different. This is a particularly important tactic for students who may not have a successful track record in academics or school activities and need to compensate.
Opportunities are truly everywhere. When I think about my personal resources, I realize that I know a contractor who might offer a high school student summer work. I know a physician who might allow a student to work in his office. I know local businesspeople in real estate, catering, publishing, and computer systems who might welcome a young person in their workplaces. I know the president of the civic association, who may enjoy having a young person chair a committee or organize an event. There's also the local newspaper, radio station, library, humane society, soup kitchen, volunteer network, and halfway house — all places that often have interesting opportunities for high school students.
Summers are a great time to pursue non-classroom activities, especially if a student is involved with high school commitments during the year. Many families feel that expensive leadership, community service, or precollege programs are the most valuable, but there are many other, less expensive ways for students to have a meaningful, enjoyable summer experience that can also help their college applications. For students who need to make money over the summer, there are many paid opportunities as well.
For instance, I worked with a student, Emily, whose father volunteered at an assisted-living facility. The father noticed the evening social hour lacked spirit and suggested that Emily accompany him and bring her clarinet. She played music for an hour, much to the delight of the residents. Soon after, Emily placed an ad in the local newspaper and made announcements at her high school asking other musicians to participate in monthly concerts at the center. The seniors loved the music, Emily demonstrated her leadership skills, and to top it off, the total cost was limited to a newspaper ad.
What are some other out-of-school activities that have impressed me? I've admitted students who have rallied in political protests, designed and created their own clothes, or started their own businesses. While some activities require a great deal of initiative to get started, others take only a simple phone call to investigate established programs, yet all these pursuits are beneficial. A college admissions officer will consider a student to be an involved, creative self-starter when he sees the world beyond his high school.
While I cannot overemphasize the positive value of community activities to a student's extracurricular profile, your child should not completely disregard school-related programs. Colleges want to see students who take initiative outside of school, but they also want to accept students who will actively participate in the campus community. Be sure to encourage a balance.
Building a Strong Extracurricular Profile
What is the right balance of extracurricular activities for a student to present to a college? A strong extracurricular profile isn't easy to define but an admissions officer, she knows it when she sees it. Colleges look for sustained commitment, increased responsibility over time, creativity, a demonstration of the student's strengths, and a genuine enthusiasm for the activities that appear on the list. As discussed above, the best profiles involve both in-school and out-of-school activities and create the overall sense of a theme for the student.
Let's get more specific. When I talk about a demonstration of the student's strengths, I mean that the student is selecting activities in which he demonstrates some natural ability. Typically, this means that his activities mirror his academic strengths in some way, which contributes to a strong application theme. For instance, a student who loves to write and has good grades in English might read a lot, write for the school literary magazine, or spend a summer working at a library or bookstore. An excellent science student who is shy and not a natural leader might volunteer as a tutor for young children or run on the cross-country team rather than pursue a more team-oriented sport. Admissions officers understand that kids have a variety of personalities; they don't expect everyone to be football captain or first-chair violinist!
How do admissions officers gauge a student's genuine enthusiasm? They aren't mind readers, but they use common sense. Enthusiasm is usually assumed when a student participates in a cluster of activities that seem to fit together, such as a lot of community service, school spirit activities, or political participation. Remember that your child will have more than one opportunity to demonstrate an interest in extracurricular pursuits. As you will learn in future chapters, extracurriculars are often a key component of college essays, short-answer questions, letters of recommendation, and interviews. Your child's enthusiasm for a particular pursuit or group of activities can shine through in these other areas. So, beyond helping your child choose which activities to pursue, it's also important to discuss what the activity means to him, since he will have to articulate this in these various components of the college application process. He should be able to articulate what he's learned from participating in each activity, what it has taught him about himself in his life now and related to his future goals, and whether or not he enjoyed the experience and why.
Here are several examples of successful extracurricular choices made by students, with an emphasis on the "profile" or "story" portrayed in each, and how each student's genuine interests and enthusiasm shined through:
Example 1: The Successfully "Themed" Well-Rounded Student
Dylan was a starter and captain of three varsity sports, even though he wasn't quite good enough to play any of them in college. Additionally, he volunteered to mentor a middle-school student, wrote columns for the school paper, and participated in meaningful social science research for four years. He has also participated in Model Congress and was active in his temple youth group during ninth and tenth grades.
The main themes I see in Dylan's diverse extracurricular profile are leadership and civic responsibility. He's a significant leader in his school community, has been selected as a role model in two venues (sports captain and volunteer mentor), and, even with a full high school course schedule, he participated in both in-school and out-of-school activities. To round out Dylan's profile, he listed his future ambition as a desire to study journalism and continue to hone his leadership and mentoring skills. In my mind, this all fits and makes Dylan an excellent candidate for admission, assuming his academic record is also strong.
Don't panic! What if my child has not participated in any — or very few — activities?
Sometimes, although it is rare, an exceptional academic record will help to compensate for a lack of extracurricular activities, but not at the most selective schools, where admissions officers want the complete package. Kids really do need to be involved if they want to get into college. Even if this means that your child joins a club or starts volunteering at the beginning of his senior year, that is better than having no activities at all.
If you are already involved in the application process and it is too late for your child to add more extracurriculars to his profile, you will have to work extra hard to create an overall image that a college will look upon favorably. For instance, I know a young woman who has very good grades at a top public high school and strong test scores. However, she has participated in only one or two activities throughout high school. While her lack of activities meant that she could not apply to the highest-tier colleges in the country, she found ways to improve her chances at very good schools. For instance, she included hobbies, travel, and family activities on her application activities list. She also worked very hard to create stellar essays that reflect her spunk and personality, and used her essays to say that she has learned she could be a more complete person by stretching herself to be involved in pursuits outside her comfort zone. Part of her theme is to convince colleges that she is eager to be more involved on campus than she has been in high school.
Example 2: The Committed Leader
Lily attended an international high school and served as a student council representative in ninth and tenth grades, treasurer in eleventh grade, and class president in twelfth. She was a junior reporter in ninth grade, features editor in tenth and eleventh grades, and then coeditor in chief of the school newspaper senior year. She was also a four-year member of the basketball team, an avid photographer, and a devoted community servant (her family runs an annual benefit for a homeless shelter).
Like Dylan, Lily had a depth of commitment that shone through, with four years of involvement in each pursuit and a steady path of increasing responsibility and leadership. When evaluating Lily's overall profile it was clear that she was a natural leader who was committed to contributing as deeply as possible to each of her pursuits. Was she captain of the basketball team? No, but she stuck with it for four years. Did she win any awards for her photography? No, but she pursued a passion and also remained interested in it even with other time-consuming activities on her plate.
Don't Panic! What if my child has never held a leadership position?
Leadership is the icing on the extracurricular cake. Students are rewarded for constancy and depth of interest, but leaders have a definite edge, particularly at the most selective schools where most applicants have leadership experience. It is okay for your child not to be a leader in everything. If your child has no leadership positions at all, he should look for opportunities that require initiative in his other extracurricular pursuits. For instance, he could start a new committee in an existing organization or submit stories to the local newspaper.
While some leadership is important and highly encouraged, admissions officers also appreciate a stick-to-it attitude and consistent participation. Remember, they value a genuine passion, such as Lily's pursuit of photography. A child shouldn't join the five-person juggling team that he has no interest in, just so he can be president. Most colleges would rather see a depth of long-term interest that did not result in a leadership position than a "quick hit" of leadership that smacks of artificiality.
Example 3: The Passionately Focused Young Adult
Sam was a highly accomplished thespian. He participated in his school's extensive theater program both on stage and behind the scenes. He organized a cabaret at his church. He participated in stand-up comedy nights at school, as well as the annual talent shows. On weekends he took acting classes in a nearby city, and during the summers, he participated in summer stock community theater. His passion was evident, and he continuously looked for ways to further develop it, expand upon it, and continue to challenge himself.
The above example could apply to a student who is equally passionate about computers, Chinese history, or virtually any other topic. The key factor is commitment. Don't be afraid to show that your child has a deep interest in one area. Remember, colleges are looking for a well-rounded student body, which includes room for students with singular but deeply felt interests.
Don't Panic! What if my child is unfocused, or "clueless," about his interests?
If your child really isn't sure what college major or career he aspires to, and he has tried multiple electives, after-school activities, and summer programs, then look for themes and talents in his diverse résumé and build on those with course selection and additional extracurriculars. For instance, if he has worked on the school paper, excels in history, interned at a law firm, and cheers on the pep squad, instead of positioning him as well-rounded to colleges, you could tell a story of a boy with excellent communications talent. This pulls together the themes of written and oral communication and paints a more cohesive picture. If this child is a sophomore or junior, you might encourage him to seek a leadership position on the school newspaper and try a public speaking class on the weekends to improve his overall extracurricular profile.
The examples above demonstrate commitment, energy, responsibility, leadership, and pursuit of natural interests. There is no perfect combination for success, no "right" number of activities, and no guarantees for admission. But each student benefited in the college admissions process from extracurricular pursuits. The students pursued natural interests, had a sense of what they believed in, and knew a bit about their future intentions. And they surely had almost no trouble identifying several topics for their college essays.
These profiles, though above average, are not unattainable and would be quite common among applicants to selective colleges. Some parents worry that the only students who get into college have done something completely extraordinary, like developing a cure for a rare disease, learning to speak Farsi, or starring in a play on Broadway. But as you can see, Dylan, Lily, and Sam each participated in school-based activities and supplemented those experiences with out-of-school pursuits that can be found in most communities.
And in each situation, adults at school and in the community became familiar with the strength and reputation of the student. This can be an enormous asset when it comes time to select faculty members for letters of recommendation. When a teacher or counselor can speak not just of the student's contributions to the classroom, but also to the school and community as a whole, it creates a more interesting picture, which, in turn provides a greater impact on the college admissions evaluation process.
Students should work to develop a positive reputation in high school, to supplement their academic and extracurricular record and profile. Your child's reputation at school, particularly among adults, is the final piece of the high school picture an admissions officer will assess. Students who develop healthy relationships with their peer group and positive relationships with other adults have the most rewarding and satisfying high school career — and a better chance of getting into their college of choice. Kids without worthwhile connections are frequently unhappy, less involved in meaningful activities, disconnected from their community, and often do not achieve academic potential. As a parent, there is much you can do to help your child earn respect and admiration throughout high school.
Helping Your Child Become a School Citizen
For an admissions officer at a selective school, one of the main objectives is to create a picture of the applicant as a school citizen. In other words: What type of kid is this? Would this boy be a good roommate, lab partner, community leader? Will this girl be involved in a sorority, community service, athletics, or peer tutoring?
Remember that, in addition to selecting students to attend their school, admissions officers are creating a community of people. The extracurricular profile and essay will supply some of this information, but the most powerful statements about this involvement will probably come from a teacher, coach, or adviser in the form of a recommendation. Therefore, to maximize the high school experience and prepare for the college application process, students should develop a few substantial relationships with teachers or other adults at the high school. This is particularly important if your child is currently a freshman, sophomore, or junior.
Almost all parents I've worked with have a sense of their child's reputation at school, from report card comments, parent-teacher meetings, and intuition. If you have any doubts, contact your child's guidance counselor to discuss this important issue. If, after assessing your child's reputation, you think it needs some work, here are some actions you can suggest to your child to improve relationships at school:
Be polite to all students and adults
Obey the rules during school hours and after-school events.
Attend school events, such as sports tournaments, school dances, and pep rallies.
Act like a role model to younger kids, perhaps through tutoring, interaction on sports teams, or socially by having friends in all grades.
Some other, less obvious, suggestions include:
Volunteer on an existing school committee.
Create a new extracurricular activity.
Help plan an event, such as an art show, a school-wide fund-raiser, or new student orientation.
As a former high school administrator primarily responsible for student activities and student life, I saw kids distinguish themselves in positive and negative ways. I noticed who said hello to other kids in the hallway, who held the doors for the people behind them, who handed in permission slips on time. I knew who would be helpful during homecoming or if I needed a quick favor. I wasn't the only one who noticed; other faculty members did too. We talked over lunch, sharing stories about students who stood out in both good and bad ways. It's important to understand that throughout high school, students are building a reputation with the adults they see daily. Students should be genuine but also aware that teachers and administrators are watching, talking, and remembering.
Note that any of the recommendations mentioned in this section can have a positive impact during all four years of high school — even first semester senior year before college applications are due. If your child's attempt to improve a poor reputation is genuine and earnest, it is never too late to become a respected school citizen.
IV. Parent To-Do: Goal Setting
Now that I have explored the three key components of your child's high school experience — academics, extracurricular activities, and reputation — it is time to work with your child to put a detailed plan into action. This final section of Chapter 1 offers the tangible tools and support you will need to help your child apply all of the information presented so far. There are many conversations you can have and exercises you can complete to help your child survive and thrive throughout high school and during the college admissions process. It's all about communication, honesty, and strategy.
I know that talking to a teenager about college and the future isn't always easy. Some kids are excited about the college admissions process, and others are scared to death by the fierce competition, the endless choices, and a natural fear of growing up. As a parent, it's your job to open the lines of communication. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
The "let's talk about college" conversation shouldn't come out of left field. If you aren't in the habit of regularly speaking to your child about important issues (other than negotiating curfew), it's a good idea to ease into the process by talking about other things first. You may ask your son what he thinks about a particular world event in the news or suggest that he tell you about some interesting things he's been learning in history class. Solicit your child's opinions, so he will know that it's okay to share honest thoughts and dreams about the future.
Share some fun activities with your child to build trust and communication, especially if you haven't "hung out" together in a while. Ask your daughter what she wants to do with you, such as attending a soccer match or getting a manicure. These fun times can serve as a good chance to casually introduce the topic of college and goal setting for the future. Take cues from your child on where and when to talk. Some teens will open up on a quiet walk, while others prefer to talk over a burger and fries.
Whenever you are having a conversation with your child, particularly about college and the future, listen more than you talk. Don't belittle his ideas, roll your eyes, or take a phone call while you're talking. The more a parent listens honestly and without judgment, the more a child is likely to share.
To-Do: Goal-Setting Exercise
In high school, it is important for students to think about setting goals, since clear goals can influence the choices they make. For example, I am currently working with a tenth grader, Steve, who is working toward three goals: all-league in his sport, achieving grades of B+ or better, and adding one additional extracurricular activity to his busy schedule. If he achieves these goals, he will be on track for his selected schools.
Steve could play a Division III sport if he continues to improve and works diligently in the off-season. He also knows that as a recruited athlete, he might have a slight edge in the admissions process. As a result, this year he chose to take slightly less rigorous courses and will do the same next year. His goal is to maintain high grades and still manage his athletic commitments. Instead of taking an AP course load, he maintained a challenging all-honors curriculum, a manageable and not overwhelming schedule. Looking at his athletic and academic results so far this year, he seems to have made the right choice. Goal setting also provides a sense of satisfaction and confidence. Steve can focus on the activities that are productive and make him happy, while helping him realize what he wants to accomplish for the remainder of high school.
Goal setting is important, because it will help your child understand himself better. Your child should think about his current activities and where he wants to spend his time. As an involved parent, you can help your child brainstorm (preferably starting in ninth grade) about high school and future goals. With concrete goals in mind — such as maintaining a strong GPA and achieving extracurricular milestones like an athletic honor or a place in a prestigious art exhibit — your child's decisions surrounding the high school experience become easier because he is narrowing his choices to those that interest him and fit with his profile as a student committed to certain activities or skills.
Here are some general guidelines to suggest to your child when beginning the process of goal setting.
Write down your goals so you have a record of your thoughts.
Share your goals with someone, preferably an adult, to determine if they are challenging enough or perhaps too challenging.
Check in with your goals periodically, perhaps once a month or once a semester, to assess on your progress.
Adjust if necessary; nothing is set in stone.
Have your goals reflect what really makes you happy.
Be creative — try new things.
Don't focus on grades alone.
Be specific, concrete, and positive.
Once you've set up these basic guidelines, you can begin to help your child get more specific. The following questions can help define your child's goal setting through the first three years of high school.
1. What are three goals I want to accomplish by the end of the first semester this year? Considering my goals, what are three specific steps I can take to make each a reality?
2. What are three goals I want to accomplish by the end of this school year? What specific steps, in addition to the steps above, can I take to make this happen?
3. What are my longer-term goals? What would I like to accomplish by high school graduation? What specific steps do I need to take in order to achieve each goal by the end of high school?
The following examples demonstrate sample goal setting sheets, including my commentary, for the first three years of high school.
Example 1: Goal-Setting Sheet for Ninth Grade Student
Goals I want to accomplish by the end of the first semester: Note that setting goals for first semester is a valuable exercise for ninth graders with no experience of the high school environment. These were established the summer before freshman year.
1. Earn all As.
This is an admirable goal but might be setting sights too high; better to be specific, "Earn an A in honors English, my best subject."
2. Make two new friends.
This is a great goal for a ninth grader, and an important one, too. You should value this type of goal as much as you would one about academics. Make sure your child understands that his happiness is as important as his success in the classroom.
3. Write two articles for the school paper.
This is another great goal — specific, achievable, perhaps risky, but could yield big benefits down the road.
Goals I want to achieve by the end of freshman year:
1. Qualify for honors classes in sophomore year.
2. Find a regular babysitting job.
3. Run for an editorial position on newspaper for tenth grade.
These are all good — positive, specific, doable. Each one can be achieved by following a specific plan of action.
Goals I want to achieve by high school graduation:
1. Get into dream school A.
2. Get academic scholarship to private school B.
3. Be class president.
All good, except the class president seems to come out of left field. If this is a true goal, then perhaps some work in student government would be a good first step as a ninth grader. He will see if he likes the activity and will get one step closer to this longer-term goal.
Example 2: Goal-Setting Sheet for Tenth Grade Student A student established these goals during the summer before sophomore year.
Goals I want to achieve by the end of sophomore year:
1. Get better grades. Too vague — this led to a conversation where we defined "better" and what was reasonable. We decided that he would change this to "All final grades of B+ and better."
2. Join a club. Again, too vague. This led to conversation in which we identified several areas of interest and decided he would attend the first meetings of student government, newspaper, and robotics club.
3. Make the county wrestling tournament. This was great — specific, doable, and concrete.
Goals I want to achieve by high school graduation:
1. Have a high GPA. Again, this leads to a good conversation about what "high" and "reasonable" means. What are you shooting for?
2. Get into a good college. This is a good jumping-off point for a family conversation about what a "good college" is and what that means to all of you.
3. Become captain of the wrestling team. Specific and doable as well as a great motivator.
Example 3: Goal-Setting Sheet for Eleventh Grade Student
A student established these following goals during the summer before junior year.
Goals I want to achieve by end of third quarter junior year:
1. Maintain B+ or better in chemistry. a. Study for every test.
b. Do homework/hand in every assignment on time.
2. Maintain B or better in pre-calculus.
a. Study a lot for tests.
b. Go for help if I do not understand something.
3. Date for junior prom.
This student has given himself excellent goals, as well as taken it to the next level and identified ways to get himself there. Number 3 should not be diminished — this is a serious social goal for this particular student, though he did not share with me his ideas on how he might accomplish it!
Goals I want to achieve by the end of junior year:
1. Make new friend.
a. Talk to new people.
b. Be more outgoing.
c. Sit with new people at lunch.
2. Earn over 75 on all statewide tests.
a. Study hard.
b. Pay attention in class/take good notes.
c. Ask for help if I do not understand.
3. All grades B or better on fourth-quarter report card.
a. Hand in all work on time.
b. Talk to teachers and get extra help if I need it.
c. Do not procrastinate.
Once again, great ideas on how to get there. I suggested this student post this somewhere in his house where he would see it at least once per day, ideally in the morning, to remind himself of the action steps he wants to take. If the student shares this with his parents, they will begin to have a better sense of his social struggles and what he might be worried about in addition to his academic performance.
Goals I want to achieve by high school graduation:
1. Pass road test.
a. Pay attention in driver's ed class.
b. Listen to driving instructor.
c. Practice what I learn on road with parents.
d. Study rules and regulations.
Although this might not be the most intense or ambitious goal, it's clearly important to this student. The way he has laid out a careful, thoughtful, and specific game plan led to a conversation about how he can use this determination in other areas of his life, and how he can similarly plan for more lofty goals.
2. Get a car.
a. Maintain B and higher grades.
b. Complete goal 1.
c. Be nice to parents.
When I read this, it was immediately clear to me that a car had been a carrot hung over this student's head for some time. Be careful how you determine what rewards will be and how you will decide if a student receives them. This has become such a preoccupation for this kid that he's making it one of his major goals for high school graduation — and it's arguable whether or not he really even needs to work for it.
3. Get into college.
a. Maintain good grades.
Be more specific! Use third quarter goals as a model.
b. Participate in more extracurricular activities.
As in the case of the tenth grader, we needed to talk about what exactly this student could and was willing to do between now and high school graduation. This is an important piece of his applications and one he still had time to salvage, so this goal became an important one to flesh out.
c. Volunteer; do more community service.
This student had participated in and enjoyed his previous service activities and wanted to complete more, for both the personal satisfaction, learning, and experiences, and as a way to define himself [once it came time to complete] the college applications.
Don't Panic! What if my child is a senior? Is it too late to set some goals?
If your child is a senior, it is too late to spend time setting goals about extracurriculars, courses, and leadership positions. But it is not too late to do the introspective thinking and writing that accompany goal setting. Here are two suggestions.
1. Rather than trying to set high school-related goals at this late stage, it's better to spend time developing a theme out of your child's existing high school experience. (Note that there are many questions to help you develop a theme in Chapter 5.) This process will help your child develop self-awareness as well as an application strategy that will benefit him throughout the college selection process, essays, and interviews.
2. Because the practice of goal setting is important to learn and will benefit your child once he arrives at college, you might also take some time to help your child set postsecondary goals — for the summer after graduation and the first year or two of college. Again, this helps your child develop self-awareness and will also come in handy when he is asked the inevitable interview question, "What are your future plans?"
Congratulations on surviving the high school experience! If you are the parent of an underclassman, I encourage you to refer back to this chapter when you face curriculum-and activity-related decisions over the next few years. If you are the parent of a senior, then you can breathe a sigh of relief that this stage of the process is nearly complete.
Copyright © 2006 by Stephen Kramer and Michael London
Posted December 30, 2009
No text was provided for this review.