Parents have been hearing from friends, relatives and the media about how difficult it is to get into top tier colleges for almost a decade now. The horror stories usually revolve around perfect or near-perfect SAT scores, AP scores, GPAs and an ultimate rejection at a "dream" school. Of course that doesn't even begin to explain the complexity of FAFSA forms, CSS Profiles and the machinations of financial aid offices in the face of $60,000 per year college bills. And then there are thousands of colleges to choose from, including private, public and for-profit institutions serving student bodies as small as a few hundred students or as large as 60,000 (counting all campuses) in the urban, suburban or rural north, south, east or west.
So how do parents and students make the best decisions about choosing the "perfect" school? Anecdotes, rumors and impressions have compounded partial information into an hysterical echo chamber guaranteed to drive conscientious parents to despair. Here's the bad news: Yes, college admission has become increasingly competitive and expensive in the last decade. Here's the good news: Well-equipped and prepared parents can rationally navigate the system to find an ideal college that won't throw the family into financial distress. What's required is a methodical and analytical process over a long enough period to fine-tune transcripts, standardized test scores and college selection. Indeed, knowing how to maximize college-related performance at the end of middle school can be a crucial advantage when competing for a few select slots at a favored college.
So what options exist for a middle school parent in readying a son or daughter for the four-year high school race to college? First, colleges care more about good grades in true college prep courses (AP or IB) than any other variable. Unless a student is tracked properly in the ninth grade, it will be become increasingly difficult to get that student on track to get the best grades in the most rigorous college prep courses. In other words, a "B" in AP Physics is preferable to an "A" in Honors Chemistry. And getting a "B+" in AP Calculus BC can even be preferable to getting an "A" in AP Calculus AB. But getting in to AP Calculus BC or AP Physics can require maneuvering in the 8th grade to make sure a student's preparation and tracking sequence will be in order during high school.
Second, with so many students producing superlative GPAs, SATs, ACTs and APs, it becomes increasingly important for deep extra-curricular immersion starting early in a high school career (even summer before the ninth grade). College summer programs, internships and/or regional/national recognition in sports, music, or art have become all-important tie-breakers in college admissions. Students are invariably shocked at how hard they have to work in a 3-week summer program at a college campus, but the experience and credit can be a watershed moment in the long slog through the college application process. Internships and non-academic recognition can also be eye-opening, helping to crystallize the curricular trajectory of the next five-to-ten years.
Third, in choosing the ideal independent or public high school, there are a multitude of variables that can heavily influence how a college admissions office reads a transcript and application. Ask to meet with the guidance counseling staff. What are the school’s AP passing rates? Is IB an option? What are the school’s average SAT (I, II) and ACT scores? What colleges have the school’s graduates attended in the previous five years? These statistics are part of an annual high school profile that high schools send to colleges along with transcripts to help colleges evaluate the rigor of the school’s academics.
Will the high school advocate on behalf of its applicants to the respective private colleges during the Early Decision, Regular Decision and Wait List phases? Will they advocate to Financial Aid officials at both public and private colleges? How many colleges send admissions representatives to visit the high school during the year and does the high school organize any college tours? Are there experienced members of the guidance office who have long-standing relationships with admissions representatives? Does the high school use an applications like Naviance to help both parents and students get a handle on the complexities of the process? What kind of essay support is given and does the high school have a system for helping students and parents choose the best teacher and supplemental recommendations? Do guidance counselors debrief admissions representatives at the end of each admissions phase (Early Decision, Regular Decision and Wait List) annually?
Most public schools are deficient in any of the above. Moreover, the sheer numbers of students assigned to guidance counselors prohibits comprehensive interviewing of students and their parents. These interviews along with “Parent Brag” forms are the minimum best practices for satisfactory counselor recommendations and college selection. Even more worrisome for conscientious parents is the number of expensive independent schools failing to provide these kinds of crucial support. This is where experienced and conscientious college consulting can compensate for the deficiencies of a high school guidance counseling office. I’m mindful of how challenging the college admissions process is today. Let me help support you in providing the ideal college guidance!
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