Let's Not Panic (yet).

Yesterday, I had the chance to meet with a group of sophomores and their parents. Realistically, there's not a whole lot for sophomores to worry about at this point, halfway through the school year. That said, it's always better to know you're on track than to hope you're on track. Here are 5 keys to review with your sophomore:

Key #1: Academics.

Always, grades are at the top of the list, from now until graduation. Your child needs to keep studying hard. If he is struggling in any of his classes, meet with the teacher or find a tutor, or both. The earlier you can identify the problem, the better. As you meet with your child's counselor to choose junior courses, remember to keep them as challenging as possible. Colleges care not only about grades, but also about the level of difficulty of your child's courses.

Key #2: ACT/SAT Prep.

For most sophomores, it's too soon to start test prep. If your child scored well on the PSAT this past fall -- like close to the 99th percentile -- then she has a shot at being a National Merit Finalist, and some extra test prep this summer might be worth it; some schools offer full scholarships to National Merit Finalists. The normal timeline for test prep, though, is more focused on junior year. If you absolutely must do something now, start asking friends for referrals for ACT/SAT tutors they liked. You don't need to add stress by telling your child you're doing this. Collect the information, filter it, simplify it, and present it when the time is right.

Key #3: Extracurriculars.

The plan is to keep up with extracurricular activities through the end of this year. Then, before we head into junior year, we'll want to cut out any activities that your child really can't stand and reallocate that time to something else. The most urgent item related to extracurricular activities is applying for summer programs -- deadlines are coming up fast, and many fill up by mid-spring.

Key #4: College Exploration.

As with test prep, this is more of a junior year item than a sophomore year item. That said, it's never too early for your child (not you!) to sign up for college email lists; just make sure your child does so with a professional email address (e.g., firstname.lastname@wherever.com) which he can use for his college applications. That way, when your child applies senior year, colleges will be able to match the application to the email list; demonstrated interest is plus factor for many schools. Also, if you decide to visit colleges, please make sure your child registers through the college's website (again: demonstrated interest). Don't just wander campus by yourselves on a Sunday morning -- that doesn't count!

Key #5: Stress Management.

The best thing you can do to reduce your child's stress is to understand the process for yourself. (These ebooks are a quick way to get up to speed.) Beyond that, consider scheduling monthly meetings with your child to check in on college planning. Clinical studies have proven this method is 97% more effective than ambushing your teenager every other day with comments about some college article you read.


In this section, you'll find all the questions that students and parents asked me during our meeting, along with my best efforts at answering them. Here we go:

Question #1: Is it true that University of california campuses accept fewer students from California because California students pay lower tuition?

From 2008 to 2016, non-California students' percentage of UC enrollment has grown from about 5% to about 15%. (Source: LA Times) Though the UC system is attempting to increase the number of California students in the UC system by 5,000 in 2017 and 2018, yes, the reason for accepting out-of-state students is financial; tuition from non-California students produces $800M in revenue. (Source: University of California) Admission to UCs is selective -- that's why I ask my students to apply to at least 6 UC campuses. Please don't tell me UCLA is your safety school. Unless you're trying to make me laugh.

Question #2: Are chances of admission better going to a community college first and then transferring?

About 90% of transfer students entering the UC and Cal State systems come from the California Community College system. If your child has his heart set on a Cal State or UC but doesn't have the grades quite yet, transferring is a great option. Consider looking into guaranteed transfer program such as A Degree with a Guarantee (to transfer to a Cal State) or Transfer Admission Guarantee (to transfer to one of six participating UCs). If you meet the requirements, your transfer is guaranteed. If USC is the goal, then yes, according to admissions officers whom I've heard speak at USC's annual counselor conference, starting at community college and then transferring is the way to go. Remember, if you're a USC alum and your student doesn't gain admission to USC the first time around, USC will sit down and have a meeting with you about how to make a transfer happen, so take advantage of this perk.

Question #3: Extracurriculars are important, but do sports have more or less weight in the application process?

If your child is a recruited athlete, then sports can be a "hook" that dramatically improves his chances of admission. (For more on the role of hooks, see Building the College List.) If your child is not a recruited athlete, then no, it's not possible to say across the board that sports or better or worse another type of extracurricular, such as community service. It's less about what the activity is than what the student does with it. But that's more of a senior-year item when we are working on the applications -- that's where we have to make sure the application essay about sports doesn't sound generic...like my essay about how cross country taught me perseverance. That might have worked 20 years ago, but I don't let my students turn in that kind of essay today.

Question #4: How important is sticking through a 4-year extracurricular activity?

In an ideal world, yes, you find your 2 or 3 favorite extracurriculars freshman year, and then you do all of them for 4 years. But most of us don't live in that world. Realistically, most students spend the first couple years of high school exploring different options. That's fine. The end of sophomore year is when we need to take stock and see if there are any worth cutting. Whether we cut an activity really depends on the student's answer to this question: What will you be doing with the extra time? If the student will be investing that time to go deeper into another activity, that's great. Or if there's a health reason, that's also fine. There just has to be a good justification. And then when we get to the applications senior year, we make sure to explain the rationale so the school doesn't think the student is just lazy.

Question #5: Do schools look at unweighted or weighted GPA?

The Common Application (aka the Common App), which is the application form accepted by most private schools, allows the student to report either the weighted or unweighted GPA. But each school will receive a transcript, so it is free to (and typically does) recalculate the GPA according to its own standards. Though we might not know the exact formula for GPA, the big-picture idea to keep in mind is that schools care about both the grades and the level of difficulty of the courses. Weighted GPA is a convenient number for assessing both achievement and level of difficulty, so if we want to frame your academic goal in terms of numbers, I would say "Maximize your weighted GPA."

Question #6: What's more important, sports or volunteering?

Again, it's just about what you do with the activity. Being a recruited athlete is going to open more doors than doing 300 hours of community service. But starting a nonprofit organization that helps 10,000 low-income kindergarteners learn how to read is going to open more doors than playing varsity soccer.

Question #7: What are good extracurricular activities? What sets you apart when applying?

Any extracurricular can be good, but let's see how to get the most out of these activities. Phase 1 is involvement. You show up to some meetings, and you participate in some events. Phase 2 is leadership. I'm not just talking about titles. Leadership can and often is informal. I'm talking about you make something happen. Basically, if you hadn't been there, such-and-such result never would have gotten done. For one of my students, that meant tutoring his teammate in calculus. Phase 3 is I don't know what to call it -- mega-leadership. You're not just making things happen with classmates, but on a much bigger scale -- statewide, nationwide. You're affecting hundreds or thousands of lives. Phase 1 is fine. I think all students can achieve Phase 2, and that's a reasonable aim. Phase 3 is exceptional; it's special when it happens, but we can't manufacture it.

Question #8: How will I know what college I want to go to?

This is a question about fit. Fit includes any number of factors, including school size, school location, school setting (rural, suburban, urban), academic programs, extracurricular interests (wanting to play club sports, wanting Greek life, etc.), and, of course, cost. The best way to get a feel for what you like is to go visit local colleges. (You can do your road trip, too, if you're really into it and have time and money, but that's by no means essential.) In SoCal, you could check out smaller schools such as Occidental College, Whittier College, or University of Redlands; medium schools such as University of San Diego and Loyola Marymount University; or big schools such as UCLA or USC.

Question #9: How important are 4 years of science and foreign language?

Very important! Even if you're not an AP or honors student, you can usually find a way to do 4 years of science and foreign language. Colleges like to see that each student is pushing himself. Taking 5 academic classes -- whether they are AP, honors, or regular -- is a great way to do that. The 4 years of foreign language need not all be during high school; the UC application allows you to indicate language classes taken in intermediate school, and other applications have an "additional information" section you can use to explain this fact. Year 5 of a foreign language is great if the student is interested, but again, as with extracurricular activities, it can be OK to quit if there's a more productive use of this time. For example, I would have no problem (and would even encourage) an engineering-type kid to skip Spanish 5 and do another science course if that's what he wanted to do.

Question #10: 4.0 in regular classes or lower GPA with more rigorous schedule?

My rule of thumb is always to try for the more rigorous schedule -- if you can earn at least a B. If you think you'll get a C in the class, then go for regular instead of honors or AP. There are exceptions to the rule. If you believe the honors or AP course will be so time-intensive that it will drag down your child's other grades, then it's fine to consider the regular class. Also, if the regular class is not related to the student's area of interest -- for example, Spanish for a future engineer -- it's not a huge deal to level down to regular. The college planning and application process is full of these judgment calls.

Question #11: Why are acceptance rates to good schools going down?

Standardized application forms such as the Common App and the UC app make it easy for students to apply to more schools, and so they do. However, the number of spots available at these schools is mostly constant. More applications for the same number of slots mean lower acceptance rates. Then we see headlines about low acceptance rates. And everyone responds by...applying to more schools. Which further drives down acceptance rates.

Question #12: How does the college that one attends affect application for jobs later on?

This is the big question! Starting salary will likely be higher if you attend a highly selective school. (For more details see college rankings done by the Economist and by PayScale.) Of course, choice of major matter, too -- no surprise that engineers will have higher salaries. (Source: Payscale). But if your child isn't going to a top 25 school and isn't going to be an engineer, it's fine, but your child will have to do the legwork instead of sitting back and waiting for someone else to make it happen. That means visiting the career center fall of freshman year, not waiting until 2 months before graduation. The career centers are critical in providing resources to help students know what they need to do to line up internships that lead to jobs. So when you're visiting colleges, remind your kid to ask about the career center. 

Question #13: What type of school do you look for if you don't know what you want to "be"?

What you want to be may change after you get to college, but there's plenty you can do now to get an idea. The easiest is to search for careers at the Department of Labor's O*NET Online website; you can search by interests, abilities, skills, or any other number of factors. Still, if you have no idea what career you want to pursue, I have a couple suggestions. First, seek out colleges that have strong programs in several areas that might interest you, as opposed to being strong in one particular major which you might later abandon. Second, as you look at colleges, ask questions about their academic advising and their career advising, since those are going to be important to students who don't have it all figured out yet.

Question #14: How much of an impact do the extracurriculars have on your chance of acceptance into a school?

If you want all the details about which factors matter most to colleges, there are a couple places you can look. First, you can read through the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) State of College Admission Report. NACAC surveys colleges about their admissions processes and then compiles the data in this report. Second, you can look at the Common Data Set for various schools. (For example, here is the Common Data Set for USC.) The Common Data Set is a standard set of questions that many colleges respond to annually; Section C7 of the report indicates the weight on the admissions decision the school places on various academic and nonacademic factors.

But if you don't have time for all that, here's how I think about it. Grades, strength of curriculum, and SAT/ACT scores are "Tier 1" factors that are of considerable or moderate importance to nearly all colleges (around 90%). Letters of recommendation and essays (including about the extracurriculars) are "Tier 2" factors that are of considerable or moderate importance to many colleges (around 60%). "Tier 3" factors are all the other ones: AP scores, SAT Subject Test scores, work experience, and so on. Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, but that's the big picture. Since extracurriculars so often appear in the essays, I consider them to be a "Tier 2" factor. However, the State of College Admission Report lists extracurriculars separately, and the most recent report indicates that about 50% of the colleges that responded to the survey consider extracurriculars to be of considerable or moderate importance. The more selective the university, the more importance the Tier 2 and Tier 3 factors take on because they help distinguish among students whose Tier 1 factors -- grades, strength of curriculum, SAT/ACT scores -- look mostly the same.

The short answer: Extracurriculars matter some, but not as much as grades or SAT/ACT. Don't count on extracurriculars to make up for a low GPA or a low SAT score!

Question #15: How important is an academic summer program -- all the programs offered at universities -- are admissions offices impressed by those?

The starting point for planning a summer is this: do something to explore your interests. Maybe those interests are academic, maybe not. If you do want to explore academics, then there are two questions I'd like you to ask as you research options. The first question is, "Will students earn college credit?" College credit is not automatic, even if the program is offered on a college campus. Beware of the programs that use vague language like "college-level coursework." Either it gives college credit, or it doesn't. The second question is, "Do students have to go through a selective application process?" It's no surprise that programs that reject students are going to be more impressive than those that admit everyone who writes a check. But I am definitely not saying, "If a summer program isn't selective or doesn't offer college credit, it's useless." Different students have different abilities and different goals. If a non-credit, non-selective course gets a student interested in something he can pursue in greater depth the following summer, it's still a win.

Final Thoughts

You're the expert on your child. No matter what you learn about the college admissions process, it's still up to you to apply this knowledge to your own child's situation. Often, that means you have to be OK zigging when other people zag. I still remember one of my students -- 34 ACT, 4.8 GPA, great community service -- who told me he was fine not applying to Stanford or any Ivy League schools because he (correctly) determined his chances were low, and he didn't want the extra stress. That might not be the right choice for everyone, but it was right for him, and he and his parents were at peace with it. The more you can develop your own idea of what's right for your child -- even if it's at odds with what everyone else is doing -- the less stressful preparing for college will be for your child.


P.S. Questions? Feel free to get in touch.