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What Sophomores (and Their Parents) Need to Know About College Admissions

By Robert LeVine

Midway through grade 10, students and parents are starting to feel pressure about college admissions. Almost every family who consults with us begins with the same phrase: “I don’t know how it works!”

Let’s start with how it does not work.

First, disregard rankings when researching colleges. Rankings are created by companies to make money, and they are often created in concert with the colleges themselves. To say the least, rankings are unreliable. Look up the ranking for the University of Washington (Seattle) in both the US News National Rankings and its Global Rankings. As of this moment, UDub is ranked No. 55 in the United States but No. 6 in the world!

Second, diminish that unfaltering, ubiquitous yearning for reputation. Instead, focus on how a student and college fit together. There are three factors defining “fit”: the structure and flexibility of the academics and curricula (not the perceived “quality”); the on-campus culture; and the off-campus opportunities for learning (internships) and inspiration (recharging the body and soul).

Third, when it comes to high-level coursework like AP or IB HL, more is not better. Students should challenge themselves in areas that are relevant (either a true interest area or something to investigate) and “back off” on topics that are less interesting. This strategy tends toward a higher GPA, more time for extracurricular activities (and sleep), and a better explanation of “who I am” to the admissions offices. Colleges are not picking based upon curriculum; they are selecting human beings. Using the rule of “better, not more” when it comes to academics, always embrace the exception: talk to your high school counselors and get their advice about coursework.

BTW – when picking between classes, remember that most classes have their syllabi posted online. Look before you leap!

Fourth, when deciding what to do beyond academics, know that admissions is not about checking boxes. Don’t do things just to do things. Don’t expect expensive summer programs to pave your way into top colleges. Don’t count on hours and hours of community service to make a huge difference to an admissions office. Things matter to them only if they matter to you.

Fifth, get your highest grades and test scores, but do not think that being first or second in your class guarantees good admissions results. Being top of your high school does not make you top of the world.

So how does admissions work?

Admissions is not a linear process. A public university beyond your home state will evaluate you differently than will a public university within your state. Public universities and private universities have different purposes and admissions criteria. While public universities tend to focus more on objective materials like grades and test scores, private universities often use a more holistic, multi-faceted admissions matrix in deciding who gets in and who gets rejected.

In fact, for America’s top colleges, great grades and scores are only the beginning of their inquiry. How a student may contribute to a campus community is much more important than their SAT score. That’s why private schools emphasize extracurricular activities and also why they ask for so many essays, plus recommendation letters, perhaps also an interview. It’s not just about whether you are qualified. It’s about whether you are valuable to them, and “them” means the entire student body.

As for the SAT or ACT: Take the test (and prepare for it as well as you can). Everything on an application is an opportunity to impress a college. Take your shot! If you cannot achieve the score you want, consider applying “test optional” without reporting your best score. But don’t avoid the SAT just because you think you’re “not a good test taker.” That’s just fear (or laziness).

It is common for 10th graders and their parents to wonder about so many college-related things. “I know I should be doing something more, but I don’t know what to do!” Yes, the process can be overwhelming, but a quality, experienced admissions professional can help. That includes your high school counselors, not just outside consultants like UCA. Get involved early, and things will be easier, less stressful, and more successful when the time comes.

Finally, manage your expectations of what you can actually accomplish. Achieving America’s top universities is as challenging as making an Olympic team. Still, we don’t believe in teaching young people to quit just because things are hard. Instead, let’s reach for those “reach schools” that you covet, but let’s be sure to find great options at all levels.

Let’s do this!

Robert LeVine is the founder and CEO of University Consultants of America, an independent educational consultancy assisting students around the world with applications to colleges, universities and graduate schools. For more information, call University Consultants of America, Inc. at 1-800-465-5890 or visit www.universitycoa.com

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