Ten Truths About College Admissions
If you’re a parent of a high school student, chances are you’re bombarded with information about college admissions, standardized tests, essays, federal student aid applications (FAFSA), and more, as well as by companies that want to help you navigate through the chaos. You know that times have changed since you went to college, but what does that mean for your child? College prep companies promise the moon. Where is the straight talk?
I’ve been a teacher and a tutor for over 18 years. With my husband, I run the Pierce Institute for Academic Excellence, offering test preparation, college admissions assistance, subject tutoring, plus coding, robotics, and basic engineering/STEM support to Fort Worth students. Here are ten truths I’ve learned about college admission preparation.
There is no single factor in your child’s academic and personal profile that’s more important than other factors. “The SAT doesn’t matter anymore; concentrate on GPA” is a myth. “Be well-rounded; show you have multiple talents” is somewhere between a half-truth and a myth. In truth, all aspects of your child’s academic and extracurricular activities play an important part in the holistic evaluation of a potential university student.
“Test optional” is not the same as “test blind.” Very few schools are test blind. If your child isn’t submitting strong test scores to admissions counselors, and other students are, test scores are still a compelling differentiator, even at test-optional universities. Don’t discount the value of a strong SAT/ACT score.
A student should show interest in many areas, but universities want to see concentration in an area that is aligned with future career goals. If your child wants to work in cyber security, they should take the most advanced computer science class offerings available, participate in/be a leader of the computer science club, spend summers interning, and more. Is participation in a team sport necessary? Team sports show discipline and teamwork but are not as valuable as more career-focused activities. Connect the dots. “Because a successful cyber security expert needs good collaboration skills and often needs to think quickly, the time I spent on the football team contributed to my professional growth while helping me stay physically active and better balanced.”
Impact is as important as focus. A student wanting to study cyber security could start an awareness campaign and neighborhood workshops helping the community members evaluate and fix their own weak spots with cybersecurity. “As president of my computer science club, I organized and ran a team of peers offering free weekly workshops for individuals at risk for cyber-attacks. Through our in-person and online tutorials and our YouTube following, we helped protect 5,000 individuals from identify theft and subsequent financial loss/credit damage.” Tangible impact is more valuable than mere participation.
The rigor of your child’s classes matters. Admissions officers compare the level of rigor available versus the level of rigor attempted. They want to see a student challenge themselves. They want to see curiosity and ambition. A 4.0 in a standard course isn’t as strong as a 3.7 in an advanced course, which may be on a five-point scale.
To get into a top-tier school, start planning very early by taking advantage of the most rigorous courses available to your child. (Elementary school isn’t too early!) But if your child isn’t Harvard material, don’t force it. Have lofty goals, but not at the expense of your child’s self-esteem. People who don’t have a strong start in high school can still attend esteemed universities and have wildly successful careers.
It’s a myth that only star athletes can get merit scholarships. Start with FAFSA, then explore other scholarship opportunities. Unlike needs-based scholarships, merit scholarships are available to anyone, regardless of household income.
It’s true that students whose families can afford tutoring and coaching have an advantage. But determined students will excel, and discipline and determination, combined with a little guidance, can yield impressive results. Are legacy admissions real? Yes. Do zip codes really align with large-scale outcomes? Unfortunately, yes. However, there is little that can keep a determined student down.
If your child changes their career goals, don’t panic. Let’s say a hypothetical student, Sally, decides in middle school to be a doctor. She loads up on science classes, joins the medical club at school, gets certified in CPR, and shadows a doctor over her summers. Junior year, she realizes a career in medicine is not for her. She discovers what she really loves is the inner workings of the human body. She loves exploring how things work, and because she’s also artistic, she’d like to design how things work. Engineering is a better fit. Her extracurriculars led to self-discovery which put her on a path to engineering. No teen can have all the answers about their future! If Sally’s change of focus is properly explained, it will not adversely affect her.
This is an unpopular truth, but it is a truth: college isn’t for everyone. There are other paths to success. Some return to college later in life, and being a life-long student, whether formally or casually, is a worthy goal for us all. If your child is ambivalent about college, forcing an immediate decision or action could lead to wasted money, a low GPA, poor self-esteem, and a damaged relationship. Honor your child’s decisions while also presenting data that shows the possible outcomes of various choices.
Kids and parents don’t always see eye-to-eye on college. As you navigate college admissions, don’t be afraid to lean on school counselors and community resources to help your child find their path.