The High School Years and Applying to College

It has probably been a while since you were a high school student applying for college, so wouldn’t it be nice to have a little guidance for your children along the way?  Your children will spend 4 years in high school, and the average application spends just 8 minutes in the hands of an admissions officer.  What will make your child’s application stand out in those short few minutes?  Fortunately, through College Coach, we have consulted with former admissions officers of the top universities in the United States, and we’d like to share what we have learned.

What are the most important elements of your college application?

The curriculum of the student’s high school is the most important part of those four high school years in the eyes of the officers combing through thousands of college applications.  What level of coursework was available to the student and what classes did the student take advantage of.  Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses are of greater value, and of course, the scores that your child earns in those classes are critical as well.  GPAs alone, however, are not enough for admissions officers because it’s too difficult to compare GPAs across various high schools, many of which have different calculation methodologies.  But some high schools do provide GPA distributions when they route student transcripts to colleges.  And while many states have different graduation requirements, students looking toward top colleges should consider 4 years of the following coursework mandatory: social studies, science, English, math, and foreign language.

The importance of test scores is often downplayed by colleges because they want to receive as many applications from prospective students as possible.  (One major component of college rankings is how selective they are, so more applications means more rejections and a lower acceptance rate.)  But the reality is that test scores are the most important component after the high school transcript.  In fact, many big state schools will accept students on the basis of transcript and test scores alone, due to the volume of applicants.  The ACT and the SAT are both acceptable, so students can take either or both.  We would recommend focusing your efforts and preparing for only one. You can take the PreACT or the PSAT (8/9 and 10) to find out on which test your child is most likely to perform best.  When it’s time for the real tests, you can even take them more than once.  Most colleges allow “super score” which effectively takes your child’s best score of each subsection of the test.  Some colleges allow Score Choice which allows you to choose the individual test date for which you want to share a test score.  A few colleges, including NYU, are “text flexible” – you choose which type of test scores to send.  See an example of a college’s standardized testing policy (NYU).  For top schools, you will want to target an SAT score of above 1500 or an ACT score of above 22.

Smaller schools will look at extracurricular activities as well.  For this component, there is really no right or wrong activity; there is just activity and lack of activity.  Colleges look to this component to project and evaluate the student’s impact on campus, talent, commitment, leadership potential, and time management abilities.  Choose a few activities and stick with them.  Follow your interests and commit deeply.

Many colleges also require recommendation letters.  More letters is not necessarily better.  Remember, the admissions officers can’t spend that much time on each application due to the sheer volume that they need to review.  You should ask teachers, advisors, coaches, etc. who can speak to the student’s performance in the classroom or the community.  If you choose to provide extra letters of recommendation, the letters should not repeat the same themes.  Extra recommendations should be glowing, outstanding letters from outside of school.

The essay is another critical component for most applications at top schools.  The essay is the opportunity for the students to add color and let their personalities shine.  Parents should not heavily edit, as it can be obvious to an experienced admissions officer.  Parents can, however, help with brainstorming.  Introspection is an uncommon and challenging quality among high school students, and parents can provide a lot of guidance in this pre-writing stage.  Students should show themselves through their words, rather than simply telling.  Use evidence-based, personal examples to support a consistent thesis of the essay.  Refrain from overuse of the thesaurus, as it’s difficult to arrive at the appropriate usage with words that are brand new to the student.

Here is a grade by grade guide to what a college-bound student (and his or her parent) should be thinking about in each year of high school:

9th grade: The first year of high school is your chance to explore different activities.  Try different sports, clubs, or service work.  Use this year to experiment and find what you like.  Take the PSAT 8/9.

10th grade: Narrow your focus, take challenging classes, but focus on a smaller number of activities – ones that you will stick with for a few years.  Take the PSAT and/or the PreACT.

11th grade: Junior year is the most important year on your transcript because it is the most recent full academic year.  Admissions officers want to see excellent grades in challenging classes, and they want to see some continuity in your participation in extracurricular activities.  You could play a sport or instrument, start a club, or organize a fundraiser for your school or team.  Visit college campuses.  Take the SAT or ACT.

12th grade: Your first and second marking period grades of your senior year will be included with your application (with the exception of early decision / early action applications), so your grades in the first half of your senior year still count!  Moreover, AP coursework could be used as college credit, potentially saving you money and time during your college years.  You can also use that credit to place into higher classes to do more advanced coursework in college. Visit more college campuses and apply!

Now you know what to do to ensure you are prepared for the next step.  But how should you decide where to apply?  College Coach recommends applying to 6-10 colleges:

  • 2 ‘safety’ schools where you are confident you will be accepted
  • 3 ‘just right’ schools that are selective but well within the reach of your child
  • 2 ‘reach’ schools that will be challenging to gain admission

But which schools?  You should help your child identify colleges that are a good fit.  The facts that matter are the cost, the quality of academics, the outcomes you are looking for, the location, and campus life (what do students do?).  You don’t always need to know your major when applying.  Discuss what you are and are not willing to pay for with your spouse and child so expectations are managed well.  And you can always try for merit based scholarships at the schools where the student looks exceptional.  This money is more likely to come from your safety schools than your reach schools.  Visit college campuses, view their websites and mailings, go to college fairs, and comb through college guide books.  All of this work will make writing your essay easier, allowing you to speak to specific things you like about the individual school.  Also, admissions officers know that students who have been on campus are more likely to enroll, and admissions officers want to accept students who are likely to join because it makes their yield higher, and yield is a factor in college rankings.  Visiting campus is particularly important for smaller colleges.

If all of this sounds stressful, relax! Now you know what you need to know, and 79% of colleges admit more than half of applicants.  Help your child in the best way you can, and they will have a smooth and successful transition from high school to college.