By Erika Smith
Senior Guidance Counselor and College Planner, Lexington Catholic High School
Preparing for college starts early these days. Parents compete to get their toddlers into the right accelerated preschool, future scholarship athletes are identified before they can spell NCAA and pint-sized college gear flies off the shelves at bookstores across the country. What does it take to get into college? More importantly, what does it take to get into the right college? Parents and students want to know. They’ll pay thousands of dollars and spend countless hours (studying, practicing and worrying) striving for that ultimate goal of a college education. Ideally, a college education will bring with it the promise of a lifetime of advantage and opportunity. What does it take? The answer is scary for some and liberating for others. The answer is—there is no answer.
Oh, no. The college planner at a highly competitive private college preparatory high school says there is no answer? How can that be? The truth is, college admissions is not a game to be won. There is no magic formula that will guarantee anything. Students must embrace their authentic selves, do the best they can, and approach the college admissions process as a journey. Now I realize that this advice isn’t necessarily the most practical or helpful. I can see parents cringe. It is simply important to point out that there are opportunities found in the college admissions process for personal growth, self-discovery and plain old “growing up” that are invaluable. I want students to give themselves the opportunity to experience those things. Focusing on the journey and not just the destination is really important here.
After thirteen years in college admissions, I was offered the opportunity to provide college planning services to the students at Lexington Catholic High School. I don’t just tell them to enjoy the journey and enter into a Zen-like state as they approach the college admissions process. There are real, practical tips that help over 95% of Lexington Catholic students gain admission to their first choice college every year.
The most important thing a student can do to prepare for college is to take the most challenging course of study available. This is commonly shared advice that is absolutely true. Honors, Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses are deemed highly valuable in the college admissions world. However, it is important for students (and parents) to realize that taking the most challenging courses and earning low grades does a student absolutely no good. Taking classes that fit the academic interest and ability of the student is critical. The grades will be higher, the student will be happier, and the admissions committee will get a better idea of the strengths and genuine academic interests of an applicant.
Don’t take a study hall. Enough said.
While a number of colleges and universities have become standardized test “optional” in recent years, the vast majority still require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for admission consideration. Enter the most stressful and potentially nightmarish part of the college admissions process for most (if not all) high school students. YOU ARE MORE THAN A TEST SCORE. I tell students that almost every single day as a college planner. The scores earned on these standardized tests are tossed around among students like grenades. “I got a 35. What did you get?” Poor kids. Test anxiety is a real thing and I would argue that every single high school kid who sits down to take the ACT or SAT has it. Diagnosable at least for the four hours they are taking the test. That being said, it is a reality and something that must be tackled if a student has college aspirations. My best piece of advice is to read. Yep. Just read. Reading is free, it can be tailored to individual interests and it also just so happens to help students score higher on standardized tests. Sitting down at the kitchen table and taking practice ACT tests with a timer is a great way to prepare. Again, this is free. If money isn’t an issue, there are a number of ACT/SAT prep classes available to students. These classes can do nothing but help. Remember that most students improve their scores after taking the test for the first time—with or without an expensive test prep course. My rule is to take the test no more than three times. The first time in the spring of junior year and the last time before Christmas of senior year. Taking the test more than three times generally doesn’t improve scores significantly and it can put an incredible amount of stress on students and parents. YOU ARE MORE THAN A TEST SCORE.
Outside of the Classroom
Students should be building a life and not a resume. College admissions officers around the country will say that it is the quality of the activities, not the number of activities that students participate in that really matter. There are a lot of clichés in the college admissions world. The quality over quantity thing is actually true. Soccer players who play year round and don’t have time to serve as president of the Beta Club or start a not-for-profit are not at a disadvantage when it comes to college admissions. Students who have to work to help support their families or have unique care-giving obligations at home are not at a disadvantage. Colleges and universities want to see what an applicant cares about and what can be expected of them when they walk on campus in the fall. Someone who is committed to something, has a strong work ethic, takes chances or follows a different path is who colleges and universities want to enroll. There is no activity that guarantees admission. The only “trick” is to find what a student loves and go for it. Seriously.
Bits and Pieces
There are just under five-thousand colleges and universities in the United States. Take some time to find those hidden gems. Those schools that aren’t necessarily at the top of the college rankings lists might be just the right fit. Guidance counselors and college planners can be invaluable resources when it comes to helping students identify schools that might “fit”. The “fit” I speak of isn’t just a touchy-feely thing that can’t be explained, like true love. It includes things like cost, academic profile, location, major offerings, etc. These things have to be considered early on in the process. There is nothing worse than the student who is admitted to the dream school only to discover that Mom and Dad can’t pay for it. Practical and emotional decision making are needed in equal measures during this process.
Don’t get started too early, but don’t get started too late. Let kids be kids. Taking a 9th grader on college visits isn’t a good idea. Burnout will set in and the process will be more painful than necessary. Every family is different, and some students want to talk about college prep when they are eight. In my experience, the best time to really get started is the junior year. That doesn’t mean that things have been ignored up to that point. It just means that the conversations and activities have been subtly preparing students and parents for the college admissions process. If a student knows themselves (as much as a high school student is able) and feels supported and validated by Mom and Dad, the prospect of college applications, campus tours, essay writing and scholarship interviews becomes a lot less scary. Students can begin applying for admission as early as August of senior year. Once the senior year is in full-swing, students should apply as early as possible. Applying early has practical benefits related to acceptance and scholarship opportunities. It also has the not-so practical benefit of putting a stressful process behind a kid in high school.
That kid in high school will be that kid in college. It will happen. I see it every year in wonderful, surprising and incredibly satisfying ways. A journey to be taken – not a prize to be won.