Three Things to Remember

I recently gave a short talk to a group of boys who had just finished freshman year. What should they be focusing on now? Three things come to mind:

  1. Select challenging courses. Colleges care about strength of curriculum (surprise!). One aspect of strength of curriculum is the number of academic courses. For this reason, I encourage my students to aim for five academic courses each year: math, English, history/social science, laboratory science, and language other than English. Another aspect of strength of curriculum is regular vs. honors vs. AP. My general rule is for students to take honors or AP classes if they think they can earn at least a B. However, if a C is likely, or if a certain honors or AP class is so time-intensive that it's likely to bring down grades in other classes, the regular class makes sense instead. For example, one of my students leveled down from AP Chinese to regular Chinese because she was not a native speaker, and the huge time commitment would threaten her other junior year grades.
  2. Explore extracurricular activities. Freshman and sophomore years are the time for exploration. It's fine to dabble. By the end of sophomore year, though, we want to eliminate the less meaningful activities. Why? From the improve-your-chances-at-college-acceptance perspective, a laundry list of activities where your child was minimally involved isn't going to impress anyone. And from the make-your-child-a-productive-member-of-society perspective, going through the motions of an activity your child doesn't care about probably won't work, no matter how great you think that activity is.
  3. Explore academic interests. It's never too early for your child to explore his academic interests. With free online courses through Coursera and EdX, it's easy and -- dare I say it -- fun. Yes, your child's academic interests will probably change after he gets to college. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't explore them now! Finding an area of interest now will help you identify a good summer program for after sophomore year -- and that summer program will set up your child's application for a good summer program after junior year. When summer programs spark or deepen an academic interest, especially an interest the student can continue to explore during the school year, then the "Why This College?" application essays become easier to write. Why? Because your child can talk about his actual experience exploring an academic interest. That's more convincing than just saying he hopes to learn about the field in the future.

Student Questions

No presentation of mine would be complete without student questions. Below is a list of questions the boys asked, along with my responses.

Do recommendations from teachers and principals play a big part in college apps?

Most students will need two teacher recommendations. These nearly always come from teachers of academic classes (English, math, history/social science, laboratory science, language other than English) from sophomore or junior year. In addition, most students will need one counselor recommendation. Some colleges accept recommendations from other people, such as coaches, principals, pastors, art teachers, etc. The more selective the college, the bigger the role recommendations play; selective schools have more than enough applicants with good numbers, so they rely more heavily on qualitative factors such as recommendations and essays.

Recommendations are a silent killer of applications to selective schools! Many students don't start thinking about letters of rec until fall of senior year. Too late! Especially if your child is an introvert, or if he is the type who just puts his head down and earns the A without developing a rapport with his teachers, you'll have to encourage him to be more intentional about cultivating relationships with recommendation writers. For example, that might mean participating more in class, talking to the teacher outside of class hours, or doing supplemental reading beyond what is assigned. Showing that you care about what someone else cares about is fundamental to getting a good letter of rec. And to being a good person.

How fun are frats?

Pretty fun? I wasn't in a frat, so I can't say from personal experience, but I'm sure it's epic. Really, this question gets at how to research colleges, which is something that can wait. We need to find schools that offer the right level of academic intensity for your child. For some kids, that means super intense all the time, but for others that means work-life balance.

Online school vs regular school?

Two questions come to mind. First, has your school counselor signed off on the online course? You don't want to sign up for an online course and not get credit, so double check with your counselor. Second, will the grade show up on your high school transcript or on some other transcript? This can get a little tricky when we're talking about the UC course requirements, known as the A-G requirements. The trick is that only certain courses at a given high school are approved; you can check a high school's approved course list at the UC Course List search page. One student I started working with senior year took online courses the school labeled as "history" or "literature," but they weren't on the approved A-G list, which meant UC schools weren't a viable option for her. Don't let that happen to your child!

How did you specifically get into Stanford?

I applied in 1996. The acceptance rate was around 13%. Yes, I had a high GPA and a high SAT score, and I had solid extracurricular activities (soccer, cross country, church youth group). I had great letters of recommendation and mediocre application essays. But it was enough then.

It's different now. The acceptance rate is around 5%. If I applied today, I wouldn't get in. It's that simple.

When should you know what college you want to go to?

We can't really figure out the college list until we have first semester junior year grades and an SAT or ACT score. The question for parents is whether exploring colleges during sophomore year will make the process more stressful or less stressful. If your child would feel less stressed by doing some college exploration now, then this can be a great time to do some college visits. Check out UCLA or USC to get a feel for a large school, LMU or the Claremont Colleges for a medium school, and Occidental for a small school. Even if your child has no interest in any of these particular schools, visiting will give him a feel for different schools. But if you visit, make it official! That means scheduling an official visit through the admissions office website. When making admission decisions, many schools consider interest your child shows (aka demonstrated interest).

Does freshman year matter?

Yes. Even for UCs, freshman year grades matter. True, the GPA used to determine UC eligibility is calculated based on sophomore and junior year grades in A-G courses; if that GPA is under a 3.0, your child isn't UC eligible. But what makes an applicant eligible is less than what makes an applicant competitive. UC campuses evaluate applications using a process called Comprehensive Review, which includes 14 separate factors. Academic GPA in all A-G courses -- that is, including freshman year -- is one of the factors, so yes, freshman year grades matter.

That said, if your child earned a C in a class freshman year, it's not time to panic. It's time to focus on moving the trend in the right direction. That might mean finding a tutor. If your child might have a learning difference, look into it. And when it comes time to fill out those applications, use the Additional Information section of the application to explain the low grade. There's always a way to describe the circumstances to put low grades in context.

Is specializing in art good?

It depends what you mean by "good." Making money? Doing something you enjoy? Both? Whether a particular area of interest is good or bad depends on what your child's goals and talents are. This question often reemerges junior year when we're figuring out which colleges to apply to. "Is this college good?" is a question I get all the time. My response to that question is the same as my response to the question about specializing in art. It depends on your child's talents and goals. Your answer will be different from other parents' answers because your child is different from other children. Since that's the case, don't be afraid to let your child go his own way, whether in terms of which interests to pursue or which colleges to apply to.

What is the biggest thing that colleges focus on?

There are three "first tier" factors that are very important to nearly all schools: grades, strength of curriculum, and ACT/SAT scores. I say "nearly all" because many colleges are now "test optional," meaning they don't require the ACT or SAT; you can find a list at FairTest. After the first tier factors, second tier factors include letters of rec and application essays.

Final Thoughts

Let's not over-complicate this. The three things to keep in mind for your soon-to-be sophomore are (1) selecting challenging courses, (2) exploring extracurricular activities, and (3) exploring academic interests. Focus on these three, and you'll stay on track!


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