(answers from Smart Cookie Learning Founder Maggie Jacobberger and Susan Kjorlien, College Adviser and UC Application Reader)
When should I start the college planning process? EARLY! During each year of high school there are steps you can and should take to start planning for college. We’ve put together a year-by-year calendar to help you navigate and plan your path to college (Click here). We encourage you to be proactive and become a savvy shopper. Remember, there are over 2,700 four-year colleges and universities from which you can choose. It is up to you to determine what you want your college experience to be and then decide which college best suits your needs. Click here for a list of useful websites to assist with your college search.
You mentioned that schools are looking for courses more than grades. Does that mean I don’t need to worry about what grade I get in my classes (or my GPA)? NO! As we mentioned, while schools are looking beyond just the GPA, they are also looking at how you perform in the courses you take. This means paying very close attention to your grades. There are several significant reasons to closely monitor how you are performing in a course. First, school, specifically high school, is designed to give you a few skills for life. That means being responsible for your assignments and the material you are learning (think tests), as well as following directions. Your grades partially indicate your strengths in these areas. Second, many courses are building blocks for later courses. If you score too poorly in a course, you may not be able to move on to the next level. This is especially true for math. If you are struggling in math early on (in middle school), it is imperative that you get help! We see too many students try to write off a year of math because of a “bad teacher” or a “bad year” and think they will recover later. This almost always comes back to bite them later, when the grades really count. Do NOT get behind in your grades in important areas like: writing, vocabulary, math, and science! There are tutors and help available that range from peers to professionals – USE THEM! An often overlooked skill that indicates future success is the ability and willingness to ask for help. Get help at the first sign of struggle, and you can avoid a lot of trouble later. A small fix may be all you need to keep the confidence up and allow for learning.
How do I decide which classes are the best choice for me? Every student and every school are different. The “right” course fit for each student is completely personal. To best find the fit for you, try to decide on a plan/path that considers which types of colleges you would like to attend, taking into account your strengths, interests, and importantly, preferred learning styles. A good place to start is with your school counselor or a college advisor. It is never too early to meet with an advisor who can help you think through the options. A good high school counselor will be an invaluable resource for picking specific courses based on the curriculum, level of challenge or the teaching style, and possibly suggesting some courses that you would not have considered. As a rule of thumb for most students, taking courses with great (passionate, engaged, and challenging) teachers is the best possible option, even if it is not a preferred subject.
When should I start visiting colleges and how do I make the most out of these visits? If possible, try to visit colleges before applications are due. This way, you will avoid wasting time applying to schools that aren’t a good fit. Also, make sure that you avoid going during a college’s breaks as you want to visit schools when students are actually on campus. Usually visiting on a Monday-Thursday will give you the best idea of what a typical day is like on campus. Taking a campus tour is a great way to start your visit, but make sure to leave time to explore the campus on your own. Click here for a detailed guide about Making the Most of College Visits
Why should I bother to prep for the SAT or ACT? Shouldn’t I concentrate on my school work or extracurriculars? Would you not study for your Math or English final? Would you go up to the person you want to date without preparing your approach? Would you go ask your mom for a special favor without thinking through what you want to say and trying to predict her response so that you can ultimately get what you want? Why would you take a test, where the score helps determine your admission to college, without putting your best foot forward? If you are bothering to spend 4.5 hours of your Saturday morning to take a test, then you probably want to go to college. If you want to go to college, you should at least try to get in. (They are NOT going to come looking for you – even if you are that good at sports – you still need a minimum SAT score.) Why waste 4.5 hours taking a test just to see how you do? At this point, too many of your peers are preparing and it is having a significant impact on the average scores for the exam. Unfortunately, if you go in unprepared, it is a disadvantage. These tests are unique. They are timed, designed to be challenging, involve academic knowledge, reasoning, and test-taking strategy. If you are investing the time and money in taking the test, you give yourself a major advantage by, at a minimum, becoming familiar with your opponent (the exam) and ideally, learning some strategy specific to these uniquely challenging exams. We recommend that you start with a free full length practice SAT or ACT (not just the PSAT- that is different) to see where you are and then make some educated decisions about the best approach and type of prep for you.
How many college applications should I submit? Ideally, as part of the college application process, there is a considerable amount of self-discovery. Most students start with a large list of as many as 20 colleges. We find that a better strategy is to do the homework early and upfront so that your list is more manageable (and less costly). Visiting schools, doing research, etc will help you narrow down the list. A good list will have a few “reaches,” a few “matches,” and some “safety” schools. The trick is to have “safety” schools that you REALLY will attend if they become the only option. That way you have a well thought out list that covers all scenarios.
Should I talk about hardships in my essay? Hardships such as a major illness, poverty, divorce and death of a parent are very significant parts of a person’s life. In fact, they are often times very life changing, especially for a young person. However, when the hardship is left at how the situation negatively impacts a student’s life, an Admissions Officer doesn’t get to see how the student grew from the experience. Reflect on why this situation has been significant and how you are a greater person because of it. If you are unable to find a silver lining, it might be best to switch topics so that you can focus on your accomplishments rather than your hardships. The exception to this is if your grades were significantly affected by the hardship. If this is the case, then it’s always best to include this information either in the essay or in another part of the application. It’s important for Admissions Officers to know why your grades fell during a particular period of time so that they have a context in which to evaluate your application. Click here to view the 14 factors UC’s consider when reviewing an application.
Do I need to volunteer? Extracurricular activities are very important when applying to college. How you spend your free time really does help give Admissions Officers an idea of who you are and how you will add to their campus life. It’s not really necessary that you volunteer, but it is necessary for you to get involved in something you really enjoy. It could be activities such as athletics, community service, student government, band, or writing for your school newspaper. The length of time that you participate and your level of involvement within the activity matters more than what actual activity you choose to do. Click here for the Top Ten Strengths and Experiences Colleges Look for in High School Students.
Is it better to get an “A” in a ‘regular’ class or a “B” in an AP? The answer is surprising! From the University’s perspective, they want to see a student stretch themselves with the rigor of their classes. Getting a “B” in an AP is the equivalent of a high school “A” and is much preferred over an “A” in a ‘regular’ class. With that said, this does NOT apply to the Cal State System (with the exception of Cal Poly). The CSU System uses a numeric calculation taking the 10-11th grade ACADEMIC GPA and does not account for rigor of coursework. Private schools and UC’s want the rigor and want an “A” or “B”. However, if a student feels he/she will get a “C” in an AP, it’s best to take the ‘regular’ class and get an “A.”
How do colleges weigh the academic quality of a 3.8 from the AUHSD v. a lower performing district? The honest answer is that a 3.8 from any institution is impressive! Colleges look at students in the context of their environment. A student with a 3.8 GPA from a lower performing school with stressors and fewer academic opportunities is an impressive candidate because he/she was successful under difficult circumstances. The 3.8 from AUHSD and other higher performing districts are impressive because colleges see the API and understand the difficulty and academic challenges students face at those schools.
Do AP Scores have any relevance apart from whether a student gets advanced placement in college? Colleges do look at AP scores for a couple of reasons. A 3 or higher on an exam can give the student university units/credit and can excuse the student from having to take that class (although some schools require a 4 or 5). In addition, taking an AP class demonstrates that the student is taking advantage of rigor at their school and sitting for the test is considered to be part of the class plan. However, if a student gets a 1 or 2 on an exam, it is ok not to send that score.
Does the AHUSD have class rankings? No.
Is it ok to take 6 periods (instead of 7) if it includes AP classes? Yes, it is fine.
How are grades reported to colleges? When the time comes (fall or spring of senior year, depending on the college), your counselor will send your transcript via Naviance. In the meantime, college decisions are based on self-reported data with the assumption that you are telling the truth!
Do colleges calculate grades in terms of A-/B+, etc? No, an A is the same point as an A- and a B- is the same point as a B.
Is there a tool that helps filter schools and helps with matching your student with a college? Yes, there are many. Some of our favorites are College Prowler, College View, College Express (the website based on the fabulous book, “College Finder,” by Steve Antonoff). College Board also has a great search engine. Also, working with a private college advisor can be very useful. She/he has traveled the country visiting schools and can help connect you and your student to colleges.
What is the name of the book that you mentioned that talks about private schools? Colleges that Change Lives
Is employment equal to extracurricular activities from a college perspective? Yes, the main thing to remember is that colleges want to know how a student has spent his or her non-academic time. It doesn’t matter if a student rides horses 10 hours a week or works. The personal statement/essays are excellent opportunities to explain what makes a student “tick.”
When do colleges post essay questions? This depends but typically the Common Application opens in early August. However, the Common Application essay prompts are going to change and have not been released for the 2013/2014 cycle. The UC prompts have not changed in years but you can keep checking their website to see if they do.
What is the difference between Early Decision and Early Action? Early Action simply means that you will apply at the earliest opportunity and you will learn if you were accepted months before you would have had you applied at a college’s regular decision deadline. If you are offered admission to the school, you do NOT need to attend. Early Decision means that you apply early AND if you are accepted you are obligated to attend and cannot attend any other school. This option is used for students who know 100% that they want a certain school.
Community College/Transfer Questions
Do you know of a list of which community colleges articulate with which UCs? http://admission.universityofcalifornia.edu/counselors/transfer/advising/transferring-credits/index.html
What are the acceptance rates for transfers from community colleges to private schools? This really varies from school to school. The best advice is to contact individual schools to find out what their transfer acceptance rate is for students from a community college. Many private schools also admit students before they have completed 60 units, whereas the UCs and CSUs require 60 transferable units before students can transfer.
When you transfer from a community college or state college to UC, how long does it take to graduate? The graduation rates vary and the best way to ensure that you will graduate in a timely manner is to maintain close communication with your school’s transfer coordinator. With that said, it isn’t as common to transfer from a State School to a UC – UC’s prefer students to attend a 2-year school and then transfer.
Please comment on a student’s ability to get classes in a CC setting. I have heard stories of student’s sleeping out for days in order to get schedules. Community colleges used to be a back-up option for many students, however with budget cuts and increasing enrollments, students must now plan early to attend a community college. Students should start looking into the application process in January or February of their senior year. It’s ok to go through the placement testing and registration process at a community college and then change your mind and attend a 4-year school. However if you wait until June or July to register for community college classes, you won’t get the classes you need and your time at a community college will be prolonged.
Does a student need to take the SAT to attend DVC? No, students are not required to take any standardized tests to attend a community college. When a student transfers from a CC to a 4 –year institution, SAT scores are not used. The 4-year college is basing their admission decision on the student’s academic (and extracurricular) achievements at the CC. Standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT are only used in admissions in evaluating freshman candidates (from high school).
What do we need to know about Financial Aid? Financial aid information varies according to each individual family’s situation as well as the individual college. It is therefore difficult to generalize answers regarding financial aid. Some colleges offer both merit and need-based scholarships while some award only need-based or no scholarships at all. For specific information about financial aid options, it’s always best to contact the financial aid office at a student’s schools to get answers. Another great resources for financial aid information is Lynn O’Shaughnessy’s blog and website, http://www.thecollegesolution.com/.
How does Cal Poly Pomona compare (in terms of difficulty to get in and standings) to Cal Poly SLO and SDSU? Cal Poly Pomona is not as difficult to get into as the others. Their average academic GPA is a 3.45 (SLO’s is 3.99 and SDSU is 3.76).