The Road to College
By May S. Ruiz
I hope your children got the chance to breathe, decompress, and savor the lull because they are now once more face-to-face with the realities of high school life. High schoolers in the San Gabriel Valley confront exceedingly fierce competition. Students here: get perfect SAT scores; have 4.0 GPAs; play varsity sports; are extraordinary cellists/pianists/violinists; are founders of school clubs; are presidents of the school body; serve as officers on several campus organizations. Everyone is so accomplished that it’s a challenge for anyone to stand out. Much has been written in the newspapers about how stressed out these children are. Happily, besides being sleep-deprived, most of them get through the four years relatively unscathed.
Every fall marks the time when the process of getting ready for college application begins, whether your children are just starting 9th grade or are already in 12th grade. The only difference is the pace at which they are working on their resume. They start building all the components that go into their transcript as soon as they get into high school. By the time they reach their senior year, they should have a transcript with excellent grades balanced with an equally impressive array of extra-curricular and enrichment activities.
You and your children should determine their interests and career goals and see what courses the school offers which appropriately meet those. These should be the guidelines for your students during the four years they are in high school. The outcomes of their work then determine which colleges or universities they should consider when they put together their list of where to apply.
An important factor in the admissions process is the students’ (and parents’) preconceived ideas about where they should apply and what their dream school is. Oftentimes, kids apply to the same dozen or so most-recognizable university names. This creates an unreasonable expectation which, sometimes, leads to unhealthy behavior. There are innumerable institutions that offer excellent teaching; there is a school out there that is the right fit for your child.
As if the application process isn’t complicated enough, this school year the College Board will begin expanding the SAT adversity score which was tested by 50 colleges and universities this past admissions cycle. In an article written by Scott Jaschik for Inside Higher Ed, he quoted a spokesperson for the College as saying, “This is a tool designed for admission officers to view a student’s academic accomplishment in the context of where they live and learn.”
While the College Board’s intent may be sincere, many doubt the adversity score’s efficacy. In fact, critics of the plan claim it’s ‘a back door to racial quotas in college admissions.’ Still others say that the recent bribing scandal has demonstrated the lengths to which affluent parents will go to game the college admissions system and an adversity score couldn’t possibly balance the odds.
In recent years, universities have tried to close the gap in admissions between affluent students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. In 2016 Harvard released a study called ‘Turning the Tide: Inspiring Concern for Others and the Common Good through College Admissions.’ It was the first step in a two-year campaign that sought to reshape the existing application process.
I wrote an article that explored Harvard’s report and to get feedback from the local academic community as well as from ACCIS (Association of College Counselors in Independent schools). The high school counselors and administrators I interviewed for the story felt that as noble as Harvard’s intent was, they perceived it as something that just adds another hurdle for students to jump through. They also pointed out that “the extreme selectivity is what created this unhealthy behavior on the high school side” and they should change way they select which students should be admitted entirely if they really wanted to resolve it.
The spokesperson for ACCIS, Jody Sweeney, said “Until we see that colleges are really recognizing and valuing a student who engages deeply in two or three activities and rewarding that with an acceptance, we won’t be making great changes to our college application process … We’re waiting to see what impact this report has on admissions selection and their recruitment process. Right now it’s GPA- and SAT-based. We want to get a sense from college admissions officers how they’re going to tweak their process.”
Obviously, not much has changed since. In March this year, at the height of the college admissions scandal, Harvard released ‘Turning the Tide II: How Parents and High Schools Can Cultivate Ethical Character and Reduce Distress in the College Admissions Process.’ It reiterates that ‘intense focus on academic achievement has squeezed out serious attention to ethical character in many high schools and families, especially in middle- and upper-income families,’ which ‘Turning the Tide’ alluded to and was the impetus for them coming up with the study in the first place. ‘Turning the Tide II’ goes a step further by criticizing parents who ‘fail to be ethical role models to their children by allowing a range of transgressions – from exaggerating achievements to outright cheating – in the admissions process.’
San Gabriel Valley is notorious for having very competitive independent and public schools. As much as the parents, these schools want bragging rights for sending their students to the Ivies. But I have yet to meet or hear about parents who go so far as bribing university coaches or hiring someone to take the SAT exams for their children. What we do, however, is ensure that our children are fully prepared for the application process and that they actually earn their admission to the most selective universities – which make for over-scheduled and exhausted teenagers. If only we could find a happy medium.
High school is vastly different from middle school. Teachers have higher expectations from the work students turn in. Your children need to develop their analytical skills as their teachers will require deeper thinking and subject exploration from their papers. They should also have better time management skills to handle the more rigorous course load and extra-curricular activities.
Likewise, there is a big change in campus life – they no longer have a “home room” and they have varying sets of classmates for each subject. One glaring difference is that they now have to make their own choices of courses and activities. Your children need to confer with the school counselor to map out a four-year curriculum that meets the requirements of colleges.
Usually there is a “Back to School Night” when parents get to meet all the teachers. This is a chance for you to see what your children will be learning during the school year. While you will no longer be as involved in their activities as in previous years, find the time to be aware of what’s happening. Some schools welcome, even solicit, parents’ help for certain campus events.
In the first few days of 9th grade, your children will have several things they will be making decisions on, and tackling. I have to add here that high schools send their profile to the college or university to which your children are applying. Admissions officers will know what opportunities were available and if the applicant took advantage of them. I have listed them here with a brief description or explanation:
AP COURSES: Make sure your children choose the AP subjects they will need in the course(s) they will be taking in college. They shouldn’t pile up on APs to pad their resume because they will need to take the AP (and SAT II) exams for these subjects. Some universities only accept 4 or 5 on an AP exam for it to have any merit at all. While college admissions officers favor students who took on challenging AP subjects, they don’t look kindly on low AP grades either. Encourage your children to take courses they are truly interested in; students who study something they really like generally do well in it.
CLUBS: Your children should join the clubs they actually want to be involved in; encourage them to participate actively. Ideally, your children would start a society based on their interest or something they feel strongly about. It can be something socially impactful, or it can be a fun club for student members to take a respite from their heavy academic load. In my daughter’s school one student formed a Superhero Club where they go to all the openings of the latest Marvel or DC Comics films.
ATHLETICS: If your children are into sports and would like to play it in college, they need to start looking into the NCAA requirements now. Several universities offer scholarships for superior athletes and being a standout in a particular sport gives an applicant an edge.
ARTS CLASS: If your children’s school offers art electives, encourage them to take a course. Usually, in the first year, the grade level dean encourages students to try various classes on offer so they can determine what they really want to focus on in the next three years.
LANGUAGE: Besides the core subjects – English, History, Math, Science – a world language is a requirement for admission into college. In some elementary schools, students can take Mandarin and Spanish immersion classes. The Pasadena Unified School District, for one, offers French in addition to Mandarin and Spanish. If they continue on, these children will be ready not merely for college; they will be well-equipped for an increasingly global society.
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Your children should do something they feel strongly about and work it every summer; it shows commitment to the activity they took on. This is going to be an essential component in your children’s transcript. Admissions officers are looking for depth of community involvement.
SUMMER CAMP/ENRICHMENT COURSE: If your children have a passion for a particular activity, they should pursue a summer program related to it. Guidance counselors in some schools compile a list of the most engaging courses locally, out-of-state, or internationally.
It goes without saying that all the above activities are merely supplements to good grades in the core subjects. Loading up on extra-curriculars at the expense of grades is definitely ill-advised. While admissions officers at all the universities talk about their holistic approach in their selection process, a student’s GPA remains a very critical, if not the single most important, component of your children’s college application.
Your children have fully transitioned into high school, the demands of which were drilled into their subconscious the past school year. They have to put 9th grade behind them and face 10th grade with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
Hopefully, your kids got a lot of rest this summer because in a few weeks they will be embarking on one of the most hectic years of high school life. Make sure your children confer with their school’s counselor to ascertain they have all the courses required for graduating and for college. They need to know what standardized exams they’ll need to take for the college application. They should research which colleges and universities offer the course(s) they would like to pursue.
Take the time to attend this year’s ‘Back to School Night’ as it will take on greater significance than previous ones. The school counselors are usually present to give parents an overview of what you and your children will be expecting when the application process shifts into high gear in the spring.
By this time, your children should know where they will be applying and have visited the schools. They should have taken all standardized exams required for college applications, firmed up their college/university list, researched all kinds of scholarships, lined up teachers to write their recommendations, perfected their personal statement, and learned how to complete the common application. They practically have to have their running shoes on by the time they get in the door of their high school!
Are your kids ready to leave their childhood behind? In a few weeks, they will be on a road not traveled. College life exposes them to the real world and I hope you let them practice how to live independently of you during their summer break. Things they took for granted before – eating hot meals without having to turn on the stove, getting clothes laundered weekly for them, rooms being miraculously cleaned – will suddenly be their responsibilities. If their dorm offers catered meals, that’s one less chore for them to worry about; but they will still have to do their own laundry.
Congratulations, parents! You have successfully launched your child to college and adulthood. Hello, empty nest syndrome!