GETTING READY for college admissions
COURSES and GRADES
Q: Is it better to take a regular course and get an A or take an AP course and get a B?
A: Colleges usually respond to this question by saying that getting an A in the AP course is the best move, but that's not very helpful answer. Colleges want students who are highly motivated and who increasingly challenge themselves with rigorous, demanding courses, even if that means a student doesn't get straight A's. The answer to your question is that a B in an AP course is more impressive than an A in a regular course. Colleges like when you take academic risks. A lot depends on how demanding the other courses you are taking are. If taking one more AP class is going to throw you into chaos and negatively affect your grades in other classes, then you might want to think twice about taking the AP class. Do what makes sense.
Q: Where do I get information about what courses, grades and test scores different colleges want?
A: College Board's yearly publication, The College Handbook, is one comprehensive resource that covers all American (and some Canadian) colleges' course, grade and test score requirements and recommendations. If you want to be absolutely sure, go to the respective college web sites or call the different admissions offices.
Q: I hear that there are online high school courses. What are they and will colleges accept these courses for credit?
A: Among the more respected online course resources are the John Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, Brigham Young University Independent Study, Virtual High School (VHS), Stanford University's Educational Program for Gifted Youth (EPGY) and University of California College Prep (UCCP). UCCP even offers online AP courses. Many colleges accept credit from online courses, particularly if a student's high school gives students credit for such courses. If you know some of the colleges to which you plan to apply, call their respective admissions offices and ask if they will accept an online course you are considering. Be sure to have available the specific course information and sponsoring online group.
Q: How important are extracurricular activities in the admissions process?
A: After grades and test scores, colleges are very interested in what you do when you are not in class. They are also curious about your summer activities. Colleges care deeply about the kinds of people they admit; and what you do with your time tells them a lot about the kind of person you are. Also, one of the best ways for predicting what a student will do in college is to see what he or she has done in high school.
Q: Which activities will help me get into colleges?
A: Generally speaking, there is no such thing as an activity that will get you into a specific college or colleges in general. It is a myth that colleges prefer "well-rounded" students. College admissions officers say they prefer a well-rounded freshman class; that is, a mix of students who bring a variety of backgrounds, talents, interests and involvements to a college. It is safe to say that colleges are more likely to be interested in students who are involved in one, two or three select activities in which they demonstrate commitment, achievement, and leadership. They want students who are passionate about what they do.
Q: I am a junior trying to decide what to do with the summer before my senior year. I have been invited to go with a club team to play soccer in Europe, but I'm also thinking about taking a couple of writing courses at a college. Which is a better way of spending the summer?
A: Playing a sport in Europe or taking college classes are both excellent choices. What's important is doing something about which you are very excited.
Q: I'm just starting high school and know that some day I will need to have teachers write me recommendations for college. Is there anything I can do to prepare for that?
A: You are so smart to be thinking about teacher relationships at this early stage of your high school career. To begin with, having good relations with teachers will make your high school experience an overall better one. While this won't be true for all, at least some teachers can have a special place in your life ranging from role model, to mentor, to good friend during and even after high school.
Here are some things you can do:
• During the first week of class, make a point of introducing yourself so that teachers know who you are.
In and outside of class, be polite to your teachers. Say hello when you see them in the hallways or wherever you might bump into them.
Always arrive at classes on time.
Engage in class discussions. Speak up when teachers ask questions, but don't "hog" classroom discussions.
Always complete homework and papers on time. To get teacher's special esteem, go beyond their normal expectations and do extra assignments.
As soon as you find that you don't understand something in class, speak with the teacher.
Let teachers know that you appreciate what they do. Without any sense of "brown nosing," compliment them on something they have done well and say thank you for a good talk or lecture.
Q: I attend a high school where I am one of hundreds of students my counselor is responsible for. I know she will be writing a college recommendation for me. What can I do to make sure that the counselor's recommendation is a really good one?
A: Counselors at large public high schools are often responsible for as many as 250 to 500 students and take care of a range of issues including scheduling classes, dealing with disciplinary issues, as well as senior college admissions. That makes it difficult for students like you to have access to them, but it's also a huge burden on them.
High school counselors are the people who complete the Secondary School Report forms for students' college applications, something that college admissions people pay a lot of attention to.
Because it's important that the college counselor know you and something about your background to properly complete these School Reports, there are some things you can do to help him/her:
• From freshman year on, go out of your way to try to get to know the counselor.
Starting junior year, schedule short meetings with the counselor to discuss college admissions. Be prepared with questions you want answered. Share your tentative college list and ask for suggestions from the counselor.
From the get go, let the counselor know that you are aware of how busy he/she is and that you appreciate any time that is given to you and your admissions materials.
Let the counselor know that you will do everything you can to make her/his job easier.
TESTS & TEST PREP
Q: As a sophomore, should I take the PSAT?
A: In order to have the practice and also get some indication of how they will score on the SAT, quite a number of students take the PSAT as a sophomore. Certainly, there are no negative consequences for taking the PSAT as a 10th grader, but you won't be behind if you don't.
Taking the PSAT as a junior gives you the same information as noted above and is the only time when the PSAT has any real meaning, in that you might qualify as a National Merit Scholar.
Q: Is it better to take the SAT or ACT?
A: All colleges accept the SAT and/or the ACT equally. A good way of determining which test better suits you is to take a practice SAT and ACT online, with one of the commercial groups such as Princeton Review, or with an independent test tutor. If you score higher on one of the tests, then focus your test prep on that one test rather than preparing for both.
Some test tutors say that if your strengths are in English and writing, you may score higher on the SAT. On the other hand, if your strengths are in math and science, you may score higher on the ACT. It is just good common sense to find out which is the better test for you.
Q: How can I prepare for the SAT or ACT? How much good does it do?
A: In spite of some people insisting that test prep is not necessary, there is no question that preparing for the SAT or ACT can raise your scores from 50 to 200 points. BUT whether that happens depends on the test prep itself and how much time and effort you put into it. Effective preparation usually takes 2-3 months.
Think about test tutoring in this way. If you were an athlete and had never played a sport before, would you want to get coached and also practice before you actually played? Of course! The same is true for taking standardized tests. The best preparation helps you get the most out of the testing experience.
Q: Where do I find out what will be covered on an AP test?
A: First of all, ask your AP teacher this question and see what he/she has to say. If you aren't satisfied with the answer, then go to the College Board AP web site where they offer complete AP course and exam information. Think about test tutoring in this way. If you were an athlete and had never played a sport before, would you want to get coached and also practice before you actually played? Of course! The same is true for taking standardized tests. The best preparation helps you get the most out of the testing experience.
Here is the link.
finding colleges you'll love
YOUR COLLEGE LIST
Q: Some of my friends are telling me that I will really miss out if I don't go to a big, prestigious college? What do you think?
A: To begin with, what's important is for you to know what you want out of a college experience, including how your intellectual, personal, social, financial and future career needs will be met. Your goal should be to find colleges that are "best" for you, rather than best according to college rankings or other people's judgments.
In Looking Beyond the Ivy League book: Finding the College That's Right for You, author Loren Pope identifies some myths about college selection:
• That an Ivy League school (or other selective college) will guarantee a full and successful life.
A prestige college is best because the name on your diploma will determine whether you get into a good graduate school.
A big university offers a richer undergraduate experience than a small college.
A college that is known by everyone is a better choice than one you haven't about.
Your college should be bigger than your high school.
Is there something special I should do If I want to consider top colleges, including the Ivy League?
A: The Ivy League and their like have extremely high standards to meet. They usually look for a 4.0+++ GPA in as many AP courses as a student can fit in (minimally probably 7-8), test scores of 34 and above on the ACT and 2260 on the SAT, a number of Subject Test scores in the 700s. In addition, a student must have some kind of talent, activity, sport or interest that is extraordinary. The most selective colleges also like when students are selected for special academic programs, such as the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, Stanford's EPGY and/or the California State Summer School for Mathematics and Science (COSMOS). They especially look for "intellectual vitality."
Q: When is a good time to visit colleges?
A: Many students and parents think that college visits should be put off until a student's senior year, sometimes even after a student gets admitted to a college. The truth is that this is too late to accomplish a major objective of college visits: to find out what you like about different college campuses and to determine if a particular campus is of special interest to you.
It's never too early to begin driving through college campuses as you visit different cities on vacations or visit family and friends. You might be surprised by how much you can tell about a college from just seeing it through your car window. Of course, getting out and walking around the campus will tell you even more.
Junior year is a good time to begin visiting colleges for real. Taking weekend college trips or using school breaks is a useful way to start. To get a real feel for a campus, it's better to visit a campus when school is in session. However, visiting a college during summers, Winter/Spring breaks or even during the college's final week is preferable to not visiting it all.
Q: What should I do when I visit a college?
A: The first thing to remember is to have a good time as you walk through a campus. Depending upon your time and interests, here are some things you might do:
• Be sure to stop by the admissions office and sign in. Tell the front desk person that you would like to meet the admissions rep assigned to your high school.
Attend the admissions office information session
Take an official campus tour, or go on one of your own
Sit in on a class or two
Meet and talk with one or more current students
Go to the student center; walk through the library; see the gym and workout facilities; check out a dorm
Look into a special interest of yours (extracurricular activity, sport or special service)
Walk or drive though the adjacent community or town
RELATIONSHIPS WITH COLLEGES
Q: What do you mean about developing relationships with colleges?
A: There are many ways in which you can develop a relationship with a college, including phoning or emailing the admissions office, returning a postcard from a college marketing piece, visiting a college in person and/or meeting an admissions rep at a college fair. Making contact with a college admissions office can positively affect your admissions, particularly at smaller colleges. Sometimes a college will wait list or turn down an otherwise qualified student if that student has had no contact with the college prior to turning in their application.
Q: I have heard that there is going to be a big college fair in our town. What should I do there if I decide to go?
A: Particularly if this is a National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) College Fair, it is well worth your time to go. Here is what to do:
When you arrive at the fair, get a listing of the colleges and circle which ones you want to visit.
2. When you arrive at a college table or booth, start off with, "Hi, my name is ____________ and I am a junior (sophomore) at _________________ High School. As I have researched colleges, I found that I am very interested in your school. I'm wondering if you have a minute to answer a few questions.
3. Ask questions that you really want to have answered, e.g.,
• Can you tell me something about the campus atmosphere at your school? What happens during the day, evenings, (during the week and weekends?)
What kinds of students tend to go to your school (serious academics, athletes, techys, party goers, environmentally conscious people, preppies, funky/unconventional people)?
Do most students live on campus? If no, where do they live?
What do student like most about your college? What do students tend to complain about?
4. Thank the rep before you leave his/her booth. Ask for his/her business card and make sure that you have signed the guest book.
5. When you get home, send a thank you note to each of the reps you met.
gathering application ammunition
PUTTING TOGETHER AN ACTIVITIES RESUME
Q: What is an activities resume?
A: An activities resume is a 1-4 page written picture of your academic, extracurricular, sports and other involvements, that focuses on your high school years, but also ties in long term interests and activities that may go back to when you were a young child.
Q: I haven't heard much from other students about their using a resume. Why do you think I should have one?
A: As far as adMISSION POSSIBLE® is concerned, a resume is the cornerstone of a student's application. After grades and test scores, colleges are very interested in what students do when they are not in class. An Activities Resume is a perfect way to do that. Developing a resume is an opportunity to get organized, literally seeing what you have done and developing ideas about what to focus your application essays on.
Because resumes are the exception, not the norm, colleges are usually impressed with students who take the time to put together one. A well organized, articulate resume is a way of standing out from the crowd. Many students have declared that they got into x, y and z college because of their respective resumes.
You can give your resume to:
1. Your high school counselor to help him or her know something about you and what you have done. Counselors really appreciate when you provide them with a resume; it saves them time and provides ammunition for writing the Secondary School Reports.
2. Teachers who complete the Teacher Evaluation forms and other people who write extra letters of recommendation. They really appreciate having a student resume, for the same reason that counselors do.
3. Admissions people with whom you have an interview. A resume is a wonderful tool to get a conversation started.
4. An accompaniment to your college applications (except for the public universities such as the UCs and an occasional university such as Stanford who ask you not to include a resume or other extra material)
PERSONAL STORIES: THE SECRET ADMISSIONS WEAPON
Q: Why do you say that personal stories are an admissions secret weapon?
A: One of the best ways students have of distinguishing themselves from other applicants is writing essays that are different, one of a kind if you will. There is no better way of accomplishing this than to use your own personal stories and anecdotes.
Think about it: every family has stories about children that are told over and over at Thanksgivings and other family occasions. Some are apocryphal; others are nothing more than cute little episodes. Life is filled with little and big events that are potential fodder for college essays. Personal stores are perfect for college essays because they are pregnant with messages about who you ar– exactly what colleges want to know.
As you identify the different essay questions on college applications, think about what you have done, said, or experienced that can be an illustration of a point you want to make.
Some examples of personal stories are:
• A young boy saw that his school was littered with all kinds of paper lunch bags, milk cartons and trash. He was so upset by the mess that he designed, made and then sold recyclable lunch bags, the profits of which went back to his school.
This story was used to answer an essay question about how a student might contribute to a university or the larger community.
• A word-loving girl described how as a 9 year old she would stay up on Saturday night until the NY Times was delivered so that she could read William Safire's column on words.
This story was used to answer a question about why a student has chosen a particular major, in this case, English as a future major, and how she has always been a "word-oriented" kid.
Q: What personal stories can be used for college essays?
A: Personal stories can be about anything: favorite toys, games, activities, hobbies; personality characteristics; special talents; special people in your life; interesting summer activities, trips; the best, worst or most amusing day in your life; accomplishments, triumphs; moments that changed you life; cute or amusing says; your own or family idiosyncrasies, traditions or rituals.
wowing admissions reps
Q: I am back at school from my summer vacation and trying to figure out which schools I should apply to early. What's the difference between Early Action, Restricted Early Action and Early Decision?
A: As you probably know, there are some real differences in the different early programs.
Early Action is a non-binding program wherein students apply by the first of November (for some schools, November 15) and receive their admission decision by the middle of December. If accepted, a student can commit to the college immediately, but is not obligated to commit until a May 1 response deadline. EA colleges do not place any restrictions on the number of other early applications you submit.
Restricted Early Action (or Early Action, Single Choice)
This, too, is a non-binding admission option (with the usual due dates of November 1- 15 and decision date of middle of December), but in this program a student may not apply to any other early program, including Early Action and Early Decision.
In this binding contract application program, students apply by the first of November (or November 15 for some schools) and receive their admissions decision by the middle of December. If accepted, students are obligated to say yes or no by a certain date. Students may not apply to any other Early Decision or Early action schools.
Q: What exactly is the Common Application?
A: In 1975, fifteen colleges who wanted to provide a standardized application for undergraduate applicants created the Common Application. Today, nearly 400 private and public colleges and universities make use of the Common Application, which is available online or as hard copy. In addition to the standard application form, many colleges also require students to complete college-specific supplement forms.
Many public universities and a few private colleges have their own applications, accessible through their respective web sites. In addition, as of 2007 the Universal College Application (UCA) became available. About 80 colleges accept the UCA.
Q: Before and after I submit my college applications, what should I do to make sure everything is cool?
A: Good for you to ask! Not many students are this concerned. Here are some things to do:
1. Don't forget to proofread your application, as well as have someone else you trust proofread it as well. It's too easy to be blind to simple grammatical and/or typographical errors.
2. Always print or photocopy applications before you send them off!
3. Send your high school transcript to each college.
Also send your SAT/Subject Test and/or ACT score reports to each college.
5. Touch base with all of your recommenders to make sure they have sent in their respective letters or forms.
6. About two weeks after you submit your application, check your personal college online application account to make sure that all of your materials have been received. You can also call a college admissions office to ask if they have everything they need. If yes, relax. If no, then follow-up with whatever is missing.
Q: I'm writing a short essay for a Common App Supplement and the question says that I only have 1800 characters available. My current essay draft is 2200 characters with spaces. Do I have to cut down what I've written to 1800?
A: Colleges are very picky about your following their specific directions, including the proper number of characters and/or words. Moreover, if you go over one character or space, the online application is likely to cut you off. Cut your essay down to the directed 1800 characters.
Q: I have asked two teachers to write letters of recommendation for me for the 12 schools that I am applying to. Do I give each teacher twelve different forms to fill out?
A: The answer depends on whether one or both of your teachers choose to use electronic (online) or hard copy forms. If they use online Teacher Evaluation forms, you need to input your information online in the school forms area, identifying the names of your recommenders. Then give your teachers a list of your schools and the dates the applications are due.
If your teachers plan to use hard copy forms, you need to provide them with a form for each college, with the top portion filled out by you. Also provide them with a stamped, addressed envelope for each college. As with the online form, you need to provide teachers with a list of your schools and the dates the applications are due.
Q: Do all colleges offer admissions interviews?
A: No, not all colleges and universities offer interviews. Most public universities and some private colleges (including Stanford) don't.
There are two kinds of interviews:
1. on-campus with an admissions counselor (or one of their surrogates) and
2. off-campus in your own hometown with an alumna or alumnus.
Go to a college's admissions web site to see if and what kinds of interviews are offered.
Q: Is one kind of interview better than another?
A: Individual, on-campus interviews are likely to benefit you more than alumni interviews. It never hurts (and almost always helps) to have met and spoken with someone in the admissions office. Not only will you get information about the college, but also develop a contact, if not friend, in that office.
making your final choice
A. DEFERRALS, WAITLISTS, DENIALS
Q: What does it mean to be deferred, waitlisted or denied?
A: Deferred admissions usually take place after a student has applied through an early admission program. Deferral is an action taken by a college for some Early Action, Restricted Early Action or Early Decision applications in which an admissions office postpones making a final decision about an applicant until the regular admissions cycle.
Deferred admissions can also occur during regular admissions when a college offers students admission for a time later than the usual fall quarter (usually 2nd Quarter/Semester as a freshman).
In order for a college to insure that it will have a full freshman class, sometimes an admission office creates a waitlist; that is, a list of students to whom admissions might be offered should fewer students than predicted say yes to their admissions offers. There is no guarantee of admission. Sometimes no students get off a waitlist and are accepted and at other times the number can be in the hundreds.
A letter of denial is an official notice to an applicant that he or she has not been accepted to a college.
CHOOSING YOUR COLLEGE
Q: When do I have to let a college know that I want to attend their school?
A: For students who apply through an Early Decision admissions program, every school notifies students the date by which they need to accept or reject the offer of admission.
For students accepted in an Early Action, Restricted Early Action or regular admission program, May 1 is the date by which students must notify a college that they accept the offer of admission.
Q: What if I want to take a gap year before I go to college?
A: Most colleges are very sympathetic to students who want to take a gap year between high school and college, provided that they do something productive with that time.
The best approach for students considering a gap year option is to go through the entire admissions process as if you will attend college the fall after you graduate from high school, accept admission to the school of your choice, and then ask what you need to do to take a gap year.
Q: I want to let some college coaches know that I am interested in playing basketball for them. What should I say?
A: You can email, fax or send a hard copy note to the coaches, saying something such as this:
Fax number (email or address)
From: Your name
Name of high school
Your fax number
Your phone number
I am a student at ____________________(name of your school) in ______________ (name of town and state), who has been involved with _________________(name of sport) in school and club since I was __ (your age) years old.
I recently decided to apply to ________________ (name of college or university). Because I want to continue my involvement with this sport when I am in college, I would like very much to talk with you about your _________ (name of program).
Enclosed with this note is a copy of my activities resume with information about my academic, extracurricular and sports involvements.
Please let me know when it would be convenient for me to call. Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing form you.
Q: My high school coach has just told me that a college coach will be calling me in the next few days about playing football for him. What should I say/ask?
A: Well, the first thing is to get all your ducks in order, i.e., have all of your academic and athletics stats written down so that you can answer the coach's questions; (cumulative GPA, test scores, whatever information you have about you and your sport.) Also, go online and find out something about the coach, the team, and the school so that you sound knowledgeable about all. You want to be able to talk enthusiastically about the school, team and your interest in both.
After the coach has had a chance to ask you a few questions, here are some you might ask him:
• What is the status of the current (next year's) returning team?
• What is the usual practice schedule during the summer, fall and other times of the year?
How much time does the program require?
How does the program support a student's academic needs?
What are my chances of making the team and/or playing significantly as a freshman or sophomore?
What are the coach's' goals for the team in the next four years?
Q: How can I make sure that I have done everything I can to get financial aid?
A: Students should go to each college website to which they are applying to see what respective financial aid directions and forms there are.
The U.S. Department of Education has a new, simplified version of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) that helps families get a preview of the financial aid for which they might be eligible. This site also offers advice on how to pay for college. Here is the link to that information.
Students complete the FAFSA after January 1 of their senior year.
College Board offers PROFILE, a financial aid form that is used by many private colleges. Here is that link.
Students can complete this form during the fall of their senior year.
Finally, check with your college counselor to see what information she/he has about the availability of scholarships open to students in your high school, city or state.
Q: Given how much the tuition is for private colleges, should I just apply to public colleges and universities?
A: I wouldn't write off private colleges; sometimes their financial aid packages bring down the yearly costs to what public colleges are now, especially since a lot of students aren't graduating from the public universities in four years. (Some public universities are acknowledging that due to dwindling resources, it may take 5 or 6 years for students to graduate from their schools).
My suggestion is that you and your parents visit private college campuses, and talk to the Financial Aid people face to face. If you can't physically make it to a campus, give college Financial Aid offices a call and ask them for information about their financial aid and how much support you might receive. That will give you a better perspective about what to do.
LEARNING AND OTHER DISABILITIES
Q: I have ADD. Should I let colleges know about it?
A: It's very important for you to let colleges know about your learning issues, because they won't understand your potential as a student if you don't. In order for colleges to consider your ADD, you must present educational testing that has been completed within three years of your application. A letter from the educational psychologist who did the testing should be a part of the report to explain your potential as a college student. In addition, through an essay or separate letter to the admissions offices of the colleges to which you apply, you need to address your ADD and convince them that you have/are getting on top of whatever learning issues you have.
Q: How do I find out if colleges have resources for students with learning problems?
A: There is great disparity in what colleges offer in services for students with learning disabilities. Of course, you can go to individual college web sites and look for what they have. Among the names that learning services are called include the following: Student Disability Resource Center, Office of Disability, Support Services for Students with Learning Disabilities, Supportive Learning Services, or Academic Support Center, etc.
Two good sources of information about resources for students with learning disabilities are The Princeton Review's The K & W Guide to Colleges for Students with Learning Disabilities or Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or Wintergreen Orchard House's The College Sourcebook for Students with Learning and Developmental Differences.
Q: What is an independent admissions counselor and what does that person do?
A: An independent college admissions counselor (sometimes called an educational consultant) is an individual who is paid to provide high school students with information, advice and coaching about the college admissions process. Like admissions counselors in public and private schools, most private admissions counselors have a good deal of knowledge and experience with college admissions in a high school or college setting. Some have teaching credentials; others have Master's or even Doctorate degrees.
Independent counselors usually offer one or more of the following: Advice about course and extracurricular activities; assistance in developing a student's college list based on his/her academic and personal background and needs; coaching on how to interact with college admissions officers, including interviews; help in developing an activities resume; suggestions for how to come up with good essay topics, as well as editing assistance; techniques for good interviews; advice about how to make a final college choice.
Q: My son is a sophomore in high school and I would like him to begin thinking about what kind of colleges he wants to apply to. Whenever I bring college admissions up, he shows no enthusiasm. What can I do?
A: Different students have different feelings about college admissions and at different times. Some students don't want to have anything to do with college admissions until the summer before their senior year. Frankly, that's a little late. However, at any time parents can begin getting educated about college admissions, gather materials such as admissions guide books and go online to find information.
Junior year is when students need to start getting serious about coming up with a college list, visiting colleges and especially preparing for the SAT or ACT. An ideal set of timelines for students regarding what to do what and when can be found at our page Times Lines 9th-12th Grades.
Q: I'm having a problem with the Common Application. What should I do?
A: The quickest, most reliable way to obtain technical support for the Common Application is to go to the online help desk.