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College Preparation: navigating the labyrinth

College Preparation: navigating the labyrinth

by Myrna Beth Haskell

College preparation can be one of the most daunting processes for both students and their parents.

It can often be overwhelming and confusing, as well as costly – particularly if a student is applying to colleges that don’t match his specific needs.  A college-bound student should not wait until the summer before his senior year to start thinking about where to apply or how to present himself to various admissions offices.  Every choice a student makes from the first day he enters ninth grade will eventually be scrutinized by college admissions personnel.   

Think Ahead

Choose the right coursework in high school.  This should be coursework specific to the field of study one plans to pursue in college.  For instance, if a student is interested in pursuing a degree in microbiology, the amount of science credits required by a student’s state for high school graduation may not necessarily match the number of credits a college admissions office requires.

If a student is looking into highly competitive universities (such as an Ivy League School), the amount of advanced course work she has taken in high school will be analyzed.  According to undergraduate admissions at Yale University in New Haven, CT, “The single most important document in the application is the high school transcript. We look for students who have consistently taken a broad range of challenging courses throughout their high school careers.”

A student needs to work very closely with her guidance counselor so that the courses she takes throughout high school will enhance her candidacy for the types of colleges she plans to apply to.  Even if a student does not have a specific career in mind, selecting coursework which will attract the types of universities she plans to attend is imperative.  Binghamton University in Binghamton, New York, suggests, “Applicants should have suitable preparation for the intended major.”

Students also need to narrow their choice of schools.  The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, suggests the following: “Overall, 5 to 7 schools is an appropriate number to apply to.” 

Explore Your Special Talents

Colleges do not consider academic history alone.  Admissions offices want to see well-rounded students with special interests and talents.  Rice University in Houston, Texas, explains its philosophy in evaluating students’ applications: “We look at whether they chose a more challenging road than the normal path through high school. This might mean an especially strenuous course of study, a prolonged, in-depth engagement in a school project or a particularly creative and wide-ranging set of extracurricular activities.  Beyond indicators of academic competence, we look for other qualities among applicants such as creativity, motivations, artistic talent and leadership potential.”

Therefore, a student’s involvement in music programs, athletics, and the arts, as well as various civic organizations and leadership programs will set one student apart from another.  Students need to consider becoming involved in these types of activities before their freshman year in high school.  Students should also consider putting together a portfolio that highlights their special skills and talents.

Standardized Tests: Be Prepared!

Millions of students across America take the SAT or ACT each year because these are required by most universities as part of the admissions process.  It is important to understand that the ACT is an achievement test (tests what students have learned) while the SAT is an aptitude test (tests how well a student will do in college).  

Standardized test scores are only one of many factors that admissions committees take into account when considering an applicant.  However, because they provide a way of comparing a student in Texas to a student in Florida, they are weighted highly by most universities because they provide a scale for comparison.             

Therefore, students need to realize that their SAT score (and other standardized test scores such as the ACT) can wind up being the difference between going to a college of their choice and settling for a college that doesn’t match their needs.

Many of America’s top colleges require the SAT Reasoning Test and two additional SAT subject tests or the ACT test with the writing option.  Homeschooled students are often required to take additional tests.  This is why it is critical to peruse specific admissions requirements for one’s top choices.  Once a student knows the number of standardized tests he needs to take, he can begin to prepare.

There are different levels of test preparation.  Students can purchase review books for both the ACT and SAT (such as the Barron’s series) which provide an explanation of the parts of the test, test-taking strategies, and sample questions.  Taking a class is more comprehensive (your high school guidance counselor will have a list of SAT prep services and sites in your area).  Some classes offer one-to-one instruction which is individualized for each student by focusing on the areas of the test where the student needs the most work.  Be sure to check with the test preparation service and ask questions about what is covered.  It is also a good idea to talk with students who have already taken a class to see if he or she found the class to be beneficial. 

Apprenticeships and Hands-On Experience

Volunteer or paid positions in a specific field a student plans to pursue are always highly regarded.  Working as a “girl Friday” with a local magazine, obtaining an apprenticeship with an environmental study group, or working in a local hospital are all great examples of hands-on experience students can acquire during their high school years.  Young entrepreneurs also stand out.  Students who have already started up their own business are seen as creative and motivated.  Some examples of student business ventures are in the areas of landscaping, computer technology, and clothing design.  Many young people today are becoming entrepreneurs before they enter college.  Some are even obtaining patents prior to matriculation. 

Leadership and Civic Experience

Colleges are interested in students who have consistently demonstrated leadership, maturity, and motivation because these qualities are all necessary for a successful college experience.  Experience under this category might include class officer positions held in high school, leadership programs (such as the People to People Student Ambassador Program), coaching experience, student council, teacher aide positions, camp counselor jobs, National Honor Society, and volunteer work for a state representative.

Be Yourself and Seek Help

One can easily see how complicated the college preparation process can be.  Students should seek advice from their parents, high school counselors, teachers, and other professionals as they begin the process of choosing the right college.  A message from the Office of Admission at Stanford University in Stanford, California, seems to sum up the process very well:

See Also

“Before you begin, take time to reflect on your personal goals and values.  What do you want from your college education?  How do you learn best?  What activities and interests do you feel passionate about?  Many applicants worry so much about whether or not they will get in that they neglect to think first about who they are, what they value, and what they want to achieve from their college experience.  If you take time to reflect on what matters to you and why, you will have prepared to develop a strong application.”

For more information about standardized college entrance exams:

S.A.T.  www.collegeboard.com

A.C.T.  http://www.act.org/aap/

Finding a college that is right for you:

America’s Best Colleges 2013:

College Board’s “College Search”

Peterson’s College Search

College View: College Search

Myrna Beth Haskell is a feature writer, columnist and author of, LIONS and TIGERS and TEENS: Expert advice and support for the conscientious parent just like you (Unlimited Publishing LLC, 2012): For details: www.myrnahaskell.com. Also available at: Amazon.com.

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