Part I: Be Alike
But Not “Spike”
Throughout this book, we’ll be repeating a mantra-like phrase: “be alike but spike.” All this phrase means is that the students who get into top colleges are “alike” in certain key waysthat is, they all meet certain minimum standards of academic excellence, test performance, and extracurricular involvementbut “spike” or excel beyond their peers (think of a spike on a graph) in other, more unusual ways. Distinguishing between the two categories is important, because there are areas in which “spiking,” or standing out in the eyes of admissions officers, is very difficult to accomplish; simply comparing favorably is the name of the game. It may come as a surprise to some readers to learn that it’s nearly impossible to stand out through academic achievement alone.
But think about it a little more and it makes sense. It’s like your mom always said: you have to go to school and get good grades. Colleges aren’t going to award you extra points for doing thatespecially when you’re competing against kids who have gotten equally good grades, typically in advanced courses, thoughout all four years of high school. To put it another way: when it comes to college admissions, good grades aren’t your trump card; they’re just the beginning. (The same goes for good test scores, as we’ll discuss in Chapter 2.) What colleges will really pay attention to is evidence of outstanding intellectual curiositya true love of “learning for learning’s sake,” particularly as expressed outside of classes
but take a deep breath, we’ll get there.
Even if they won’t set you apart, your grades (and the classes you got them in) will be the foundation on which the rest of your application stands, so they’re a natural place to start in tackling the college admissions. In this chapter, we’ll go over everything you need to know in order to compile an excellent academic record during your high school years.
Part I, the alike section, is made up of three chapters: Academics (high school classes) Standardized Tests and In-School Leadership Activities. While being alike other students on these dimensions won’t ensure your application sails through admissions, measuring up to other students on these key aspects is vital for any successful college application.
Chapter 1: Academics
In this chapter you’ll learn:
- The role of academics in the college admissions process
- Which courses to take to prepare for college
- How to get high grades or make up for poor past performance
- What a High School Profile is and how to review/understand it
And much more
Say AgainMy “Academic Record”?
Your academic record consists of the type and level of courses you’ve taken and the grades you’ve earned in them. Again, unless you’re a true genius taking college level courses throughout high school, it’s hard to “spike” as a result of this record alone. The high school curriculum is a fairly standard one: World History, Physics, Geometry
you’re one of thousands if not millions of students taking similar courses at any one time. (And if you are that genius taking college-level courses? Well, they certainly don’t hurt, but colleges will be impressed by them only in the context of a larger effortand a passion for learning demonstrated outside as well as inside the classroom.)
So what can your academic record do for you? Very simply, it should show that you are able to fit into college and handle the curriculum. In this way, you’ll meet the school’s academic standards and be “like” other students attending the school. Your record should also show that you’ve challenged yourselfwisely (see sidebar).
SIDEBAR: Advanced vs. Regular Classes It’s not just about your grades; it’s also about the courses you get them in. You should take the most rigorous classes you can handle. The most competitive colleges will expect you to take the most competitive classes your high school offers in most subjects. That said, if you’re struggling under your courseload, you may be taking too many advanced-level courses. It’s okay to choose your advanced or honors courses selectively. Get to know what you’re best at and challenge yourself in those areas. Identify your weaknesses and consider your overall workload (even the most well-rounded students can see their grades slip as a result of burnout).
What Courses Do Colleges Expect Me to Take?
First and foremost, they expect you to take four years in each of the five key high school subjects:
- Foreign Language
- Social Studies (History)
Five Key Subjects
Our advice is to stick to this curriculum if at all possible. Don’t assume that just because your high school allows students to drop foreign language and science during senior year, colleges will endorse that recommendation. In many cases, they won’t. If you decide that you just can’t sit through one more year of Spanish, check what your top choice colleges “recommend” before you drop it. Hint: these aren’t really “recommendations.” Assume that what a college recommends, it actually requires! The most competitive schools will want to see that you’ve fulfilled all their recommendations and done so in the most competitive classes your high school offers.
As a general rule, never assume that competitive colleges will respect any academic loopholes your high school might provide. One of our students, a bright girl we first met during her sophomore year, had gotten poor grades as a freshman. When we asked her why, she explained that her lax performance that year didn’t count because her high school only averaged sophomore-through-senior-year grades in computing GPA. That may have been true of her high school, but many colleges will recompute GPAs to average in freshman year, so purposely slacking off that year is a bad idea. Likewise, don’t try to cheat the system by taking elective or easy courses that deliver easy A’s. Even though some high schools compute only an unweighted GPA, many colleges will recalculate a weighted GPAi.e., one that factors in the difficulty level of each course.
SIDEBAR What if my high school doesn’t offer advanced/honors/AP/IB classes? Will I be penalized? Absolutely not. Attending a less prestigious high school where few of the students go on to college may actually be to your advantage: most likely 30 other students won’t be vying for the same place at the same Ivy League school. Just try to take the most difficult courses your high school offers.
Another rule of thumb: colleges reward consistency. Don’t start taking Spanish during freshman year only to switch to French during sophomore year. Stick with your chosen language. If you’re passionate about a language for which your high school doesn’t offer four years’ worth of courses, you may want to get creative and seek out unusual options.
Sidebar A student we worked with studied Latin for two years in his private middle school and then took Latin during his freshman and sophomore years. There were no other Latin courses offered in his school, so we suggested that during his junior year he do an independent study with his teacher in an area of Latin that interested him. We also suggested that as a senior, he ask his freshman year Latin teacher if he could be an aide for the freshman class. He followed both suggestions. When his guidance counselor wrote his letter of recommendation for college, she noted the “extra mile” he had gone and it really made him stand out. In another letter of recommendation, his Latin teacher was able to describe him as someone who truly distinguished himself in class. He was accepted at his top choice school.
Don’t Sacrifice Academics for Electives
Finally, don’t sacrifice academic courses for semi-academics. Don’t take economics instead of World History or Math. Don’t take Psychology instead of a basic science like Biology, Chemistry, or Physics. Use your time in high school to acquire a strong foundation in standard academic courses. Once you’ve fulfilled those basics, then feel free to explore electives.
When Should I Switch Up or Down a Level?
If your grades fall below a B in an AP class, consider switching down a level to a less competitive course. Don’t assume that the weighted GPA will rectify this low grade. If you’re scoring at the A or A+ level in a normal level course, you will be invited to take the accelerated course the following year. Switch only if you can maintain a B+ or A- level in the advanced course; it’s not worth switching if you can’t. While colleges always like to see that you’re challenging yourself academically, remember it’s also wise to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses. For example:
We had a student who attended a high school where she did not have to qualify to take AP classes. (For a detailed explanation of AP and IB courses, see Chapter 2.) She had gotten a B- in her regular US History class. As a junior, she opted to take AP World History against our recommendation and scored Cs on tests and papers in the first quarter. We advised her to drop down to a lower level of History. She did and began to score in the B+/A- range. Although we recommend that students take the most competitive courses offered by their schools, it’s important for colleges to see that the student knows what her capabilities are. Getting Cs is not impressive to colleges, even if it is in an AP course.
Achieving consistently high grades in consistently advanced courses is ideal. However, schools will also look favorably on students who show a consistent, upward grade trend. Students often will begin high school without the focus and maturity that high school classes demand. Only by sophomore and sometimes junior year will they develop these qualities. Colleges understand this and will factor it into their considerations, so if your grades as a fourteen-year-old freshman weren’t all that they could have been, don’t despair.
The Million-Dollar Question: How Can I Raise My Grades?
1. Realize from your first day in high school that teachers are forming an opinion of you. We’re not trying to make you more paranoid about your reputation but be aware that teachers do talk to each other about their students. Are you smart? Motivated? Shy or outgoing? Every class you take will affect their perceptions.
2. Come prepared. Don’t be late. Ask questions. Do your homework. Basic stuffbut until you’ve taken this simple step, you can ignore all further advice. Sports, extracurriculars, and hanging out with friends are no excuses for slacking off on schoolwork.
3. Show teachers that you’re interested in their class material by contributing out-of-class sources. Did you read an Op-Ed that examines the makeup of the Supreme Court, something you are studying this week in your U.S. History class? Did the Science section of the New York Times explore the biology of termitesa topic you just covered? Clip the article; e-mail the story; share with the class.
4. Contribute to discussions in class. Try to help other students learn. A perceptive comment is wonderful in its own right, but to a teacher, it’s even better if it helps other students understand a point more clearly.
5. Focus your test and quiz preparation on what teachers spend time reviewing. If a teacher takes time to review a particular problem or concept, chances are you’ll be tested on it.
6. Seek out extra help. If you don’t understand what a teacher covers in class, it’s your responsibilitywhether or not you like the teacherto ask for help before or after class.
7. Make room in your schedule for free periods. We often recommend that students choose their courses so they can schedule in a free period each day, especially during their junior and senior years. Use these free periods to talk to your teachers and get extra help wherever needed.
8. Get in the habit of handing in “final” papers three days in advance. Ask your teacher to review your rough draft (remember, it’s not really a rough draftit’s the best work you can do prior to the review). Listen to their comments and incorporate them. Not only will this improve your grade, but you’ll learn a lot in the process.
9. If you’re struggling with a class and “in-school help” isn’t helping, or if the teacher just isn’t available enough to make a difference, consider hiring a coach for that class. If at all possible, try to find someone who is familiar with your school curriculum. This will often be less costly than using a tutoring company, and the tutor will be better able to address your specific problem.
What is a High School Profile?
Insert HS Profile Section.
Ask to see it! It’s a report that’s available upon request from your guidance office and accompanies your application to college. [More detailed definition needed, please. Is this equivalent to a transcript or “academic record”? Can we show a sample in the book?](Austin - I have a sample of a High School Profile to give you let’s talk about how we can make it anonymous)(I think the following should be a sidebar) The High School Profile generally shows information like the Academic Grade Point Average: what is the GPA for each grade earned (B+, A- etc.) at each level of course difficulty (Honors, AP, A level, B level, C level). This is extremely useful information. As an example, The GPA for a B in an AP course is 3.67, while a B in an A level course earns a 3.00 Academic GPA and a B in a C level course earns 2.33. It shows the Academic and Overall Grade Point Average Distribution for the most recent class of students (e.g. B+ range is 3.33 to 3.66); how many AP courses are offered at the school; how many students take AP classes; average SAT scores of the class. It also shows what Honors and AP classes are offered, e.g. how many levels of French are offered, which AP Physics courses are available, it also shows that AP Multivariable Calculus is the highest level of math offered and other information. You can see how useful all this information can be, not only in planning your courses of study throughout your 4 years of high school, but also in seeing how you stand compared to others in your class. See the example below of the High School Profile from a competitive, college preparatory high school.
When you examine your high school profile, make sure it explains any unusual aspects of your academic record. Does it help colleges distinguish between accelerated and non-accelerated classes? Does it explain that high school Latin is offered only for two years so that colleges don’t assume you dropped out of the subject? If your high school profile doesn’t clear up academic issues you feel are confusing, consider including a very succinct (1-2 line) explanation in your applicationor even better, ask your guidance counselor to do so.
Make sure that your academic record is not only clear but correct. Inaccuracies are rampant. You might even check to ensure that teachers are accurate in calculating midterm and end of year grades. We’ve found that despite honest efforts, teachers do make mistakes!
I Messed Up. Now What?
1. Was your poor performance limited to 1 or 2 classes? If so, you might be able to retake those classes. This doesn’t mean that your GPA will immediately rise, but you will be able to demonstrate to colleges that this grade isn’t representative of your capabilities. Unless you failed, you probably won’t be able to repeat the class in your high school. Look for summer classes at local community colleges and summer school.
2. When you want to improve your high school record, you might consider taking a gap year. Sometimes this involves study overseas. There are international schools all over Europe, and some will admit American students for a year of additional study after high school. Oxford Advanced Study Program has a postgraduate (PG) year for international students. Other studentsespecially those from overseasconsider a postgraduate year at an American prep school to improve their English and their chance of admittance to an American college. This extra year of study also gives students another year of experiences from which to draw and therefore make themselves more attractive candidates, in addition to expanding their world view. See pages xxx for more information on gap and postgraduate years and Resources for more information on gap year and study abroad programs. [NOTE are the program we mentioned in the paragraph above in the Resources?]
SIDEBAR: Studying Abroad Be mindful of the relative lack of control and the “element of the unknown” associated with study abroad programs, including the living situations these programs provide. A boy we worked with had to return from Italy early because members of his host family kept offering him various, shall we say, illegal substances. (At least he learned the Italian words for all of them.) Stories like this are rare, but be sure to learn as much as possible about any program you’re considering before committing to it. Once you have committed, communicate with your host family before leaving the country. Know and prepare for the environment you’ll be joining. Consider well established programs and check references. Always check with your high school guidance office to see if the credits you will be earning during the gap year are transferable. Well established international schools generally have the facilities for helping you with this as well. See Resources for researching study abroad programs.
SIDEBAR for Parents
How Can Parents Help Their Kids Succeed?
As parents there are many ways to support your student academically. For example:
- Support their study process:
o Try to minimize disruptions; for example, turn off the TV if they want to study at the kitchen table.
o Help them with their homework if the work is on a topic you remember. Even if it’s not, you can still test them on material.
- Encourage the student to approach teachers before or after school. Teachers respect students who seek out that extra help.
- Don’t become so distraught over a poor test or paper that the student never shows you another bad grade again.
- If your child does get a poor grade, strategize with her about how she can raise her score next time. Let her know you’re in this together.
- Determine whether you need to hire outside tutors for your kids. Sometimes an outside tutor can explain a subject in a way you and the teacher cannot.
- Is your child anxious, overworked and overwhelmed? Should she drop a course or an after-school sport? Does her workload allow her enough time for rest, free time, and fun? Help your child negotiate these issues and make these decisions.
- If your child is continually struggling, realize that there may be some unknown factor at play. Is she eating or sleeping enough? Could she be suffering from a learning disorder?
A Final Warning: “Senior Slide”
We all know what happens at the end of senior year. You’re into your top choice college. Enjoying yourself. Having a great time. Yes, having your grades drop from an A to a B in a couple of classes is to be expected. But anything more drastica C or Dmay result in a warning from your college (academic probation before you even begin!) or worse. Every year offers of admission are revoked because of severe senior slide. Yes, really!
We had a student who was accepted early in her senior year to the University of Michigan under their rolling admissions program. After she received a low midterm grade in Chemistry (C), she was contacted by Michigan and told that if she didn’t raise her grade, her acceptance would be revoked. Appropriately alarmed, she managed to raise her grade to a B+ by the end of the term. Crisis averted.
Colleges assume that you’ll maintain your current grade levels, so don’t flirt with disaster by throwing academics out the window after you’ve been admitted. Keep the grades reasonably high, and have a great senior spring.