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.
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The New Rules of College AdmissionsTen Former Admissions Officers Reveal What it Takes to Get Into College Today
By Michael London
FiresideCopyright © 2006 Stephen Kramer and Michael London
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe 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 specificsuccess 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.
Excerpted from The New Rules of College Admissions by Michael London Copyright © 2006 by Stephen Kramer and Michael London. Excerpted by permission.
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