Students are partly influenced by the goals and expectations of their families. Some expectations are based on the experiences of previous generations. Adults may focus on results, but students often struggle with the process of achieving results. And what has worked in the past may not work in the future. More precisely, unacknowledged assumptions and practices can reduce the competitiveness of an application in US holistic college admissions.
For recent immigrants and international students, fitting into the US learning environment can be quite challenging. Beyond language fluency, understanding desirable student characteristics can be mystifying to someone from another culture. In particular, “education” around the Pacific Rim evolved from different historical antecedents. Education in the eastern Pacific Rim and Australia emerged from the Renaissance. Education in the western Pacific Rim developed as a meritocracy dedicated to governance.
Many assumptions, both conventional and international, are examined below. Chinese high schools, mirrored elsewhere, present an educational approach very different from that in the US. Numbered items under each column identify corresponding items.
US High Schools
The population is composed of different ethnicities and regional cultures.
An underlying theme of US history is migration and development patterns over hundreds of years. Adjacent states, and areas within each state, can be quite different from each other. These differences mix in schools. At the university and college level, campus culture blends faculty of national and international origins, the geographical and socioeconomic composition of the student body, and regional resources and attitudes. In California, public colleges and universities are prohibited from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in admissions (Proposition 209).
A “high school transcript” includes 9th-12th grades.
Because colleges want transcripts starting with the 9th grade, the first day of high school initiates the record to be submitted to colleges. In freshman year, friendships are formed, social groupings are established, and new participants in activities begin rising through the ranks to positions of leadership. Transferring to another high school after 9th grade can pose social difficulties and affect grades.
Graduating and applying to college in the junior year will truncate the transcript. Grades in honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses may not be available before the end of the fall semester. The most selective colleges favor students who have made the most of their high school years holistically, not necessarily those who get to the finish line first. Early graduation focuses on credits needed for a high school diploma, which is a more appropriate goal for ballet dancers accepted to professional companies. For those aspiring to college and wanting more challenges than their high school curriculum offers, community colleges and some 4-year colleges offer courses and programs for qualified high school students.
Senioritis is a decline in senior-year academic performance, such as fewer courses completed or lower grades. Midyear and final grades of the senior year can affect college admissions decisions. Colleges may withdraw offers of admissions upon receiving an unsatisfactory final transcript. Avoid senioritis.
Curriculum: High school courses range in levels of academic expectations and rigor.
For example, the spectrum of English courses open to high school students includes English as a Second Language (ESL) through college level proficiency. Algebra, geometry, and foreign language courses may begin in middle school.
Students choose their courses with advice from high school counselors and placement recommendations from teachers. Most high schools require social science, English, math, laboratory science, and foreign language. In California, high school courses satisfying the a-g admission requirements of public universities must be approved by the University of California. (California’s public universities also require a year of a visual or performing art.)
Through dual enrollment, students can earn community college credits – even an associate’s degree – along with their high school diploma.
Organization of classes: US Students move between different classrooms within the school.
In each class, peers may be classmates from the same year or a variety of classmates from different years. Students, who may feel overwhelmed with classmates from the entire school, can find smaller communities in extracurricular clubs and activities. Sometimes, students cannot get the classes they want for many reasons such as scheduling conflicts or a widespread lack of interest from other students in the subject.
Evaluating school performance: Each teacher provides a syllabus explaining grading components.
A teacher’s job is not only to convey the course material but also to take the student to a higher level of performance. Activities may include:
- Assignments to do outside of class (homework)
- Participation in class discussions (oral responses to teacher questions during class)
- Projects extending over weeks or months, perhaps in collaboration with other students
- Exam results.
These activities can be challenging for international students accustomed to a lecture format or who are not fluent in English.
Minimizing any activity that measures performance lowers the student’s grade in the class. In flipped classrooms, teachers provide guided practice, and homework may be pre-recorded lectures.
A high school transcript (9th-12th grades) is the most important document for college admissions, even more than test scores. In fact, some US colleges don’t require test scores. A cumulative grade point average (GPA) is a student’s statistical average of the course grades of all academic courses. A transcript displays courses, grades, GPA, and sometimes GPA ranking in the class. An ideal transcript can attest to both an upward trend of curriculum rigor and grades. Courses of greater difficulty – generally (but not always) AP, IB, honors, and college courses – raise the GPA, or weighted GPA. An A+ grade, however, has the same transcript value as an A. Thus, the academic challenge is to earn an A in a difficult course rather than a perfect A+ in a regular course. Excellent grades demand excellent time management skills.
Curriculum goal: To prepare for college-level work, though different colleges have different expectations.
Students often underestimate the difficulty of college. A-students in high school become B-students in college. B-students become C-students. C-students can become students at-risk. Because of dropout rates, the US government is evaluating colleges on student graduation rates, among other factors. While colleges offer student support services, they are also more likely to admit students prepared to do college-level work and graduate.
US college preparation spans all 4 years of high school and is, essentially, a second process besides the first process of doing one’s best in high school. The most difficult decisions for high school students are identifying one’s academic interests, which colleges to apply to and, frequently, which of a college’s deadlines to meet. At colleges with single-digit admission rates, top grades in rigorous courses and top test scores are assumed of applicants – because that’s the level of competition. Students who also have significant extracurricular achievements, often at the state or national level, have the best admissions chances.
Standardized testing should be done before the senior year so that scores can be submitted for fall applications. Standardized testing is controversial for many reasons (and is not discussed here). Recent changes in testing aim to align with high school curricula. Not all students can afford test prep, but test familiarity typically improves results. Standardized test scores, however, provide national statistical reference points of timed performance. In college admissions, the student’s background is taken into consideration.
Employment after schooling depends on many factors. Internships and co-ops for college students have become entry-level job positions. For law, business, or medical programs, any college major is possible as long as professional school admission requirements are met.
School atmosphere: Competitive and collaborative.
Top students not only excel in academics, testing, and talent development, but also interact harmoniously and effectively with others.
A student’s personal network can be separate from her or his family and may be built on school activities, academic or career interests, or local community organizations.
Expectations: Achieve individual promise and contribute to the common good of the larger community.
Interpersonal skills, often called soft skills, are needed to succeed in most jobs. Soft skills include self-advocating clearly and appropriately, networking, teamwork, critical thinking, problem-solving, esprit de corps, and professionalism. School is more than a place to learn academics; school presents opportunities to practice soft skills. Wise parents:
- Reward effort because an initial struggle may be needed to accomplish long-term results.
- Don’t compare their students to others because comparisons lower self-esteem and self-confidence.
- Encourage their students to identify and self-advocate for their needs.
- Encourage their students to actively explore academic and career interests through extracurricular activities.
Chinese High Schools
The population is mostly a single ethnicity, Han Chinese, with a common history of thousands of years
No transcript may exist for 10th-12th grades. 9th grade is part of middle school.
Curriculum: No accelerated courses exist, but some high schools offer separate AP and IB programs.
A traditional curriculum includes multi-year integrated courses in history, politics, Chinese, maths, geography, and science. Students choose a science or non-science track. English is a foreign language or is taught in bilingual schools. Because the senior year is usually devoted to Gaokao study, students must decide their postsecondary options well before then.
Organization of classes: Students in each classroom learn all classes as a cohort, and teachers move between classrooms.
Testing before high school determines classroom placement. Students with the highest test scores are placed together in one classroom, the next-highest group in another classroom, and so on. A model student may be appointed to marshal peers to comply with teacher assignments.
Evaluating school performance: exam results determine a student’s rank on each subject within each classroom and within each high school class.
An A+ designates a top-ranked student.
Curriculum goal: Prepare for the Gaokao in June after the senior year.
Chinese college preparation is focused on Gaokao study during the senior year of high school. Gaokao results determine placement into nationally ranked universities, which determine each student’s academic direction. University graduates are fed into commensurate levels of career opportunities. High stakes means high stress.
School atmosphere: Competitive.
Helping a classmate can mean losing an advantage. The ranking mindset in school academics can extend into home life as parents compare their child against others. College admissions is also competitive as employers hire people based on college rankings, such as US News & World Report or The Times Higher Education. Typical adherence to these rankings ignore highly regarded liberal arts colleges, specialized majors such as engineering or business, or that the rankings include graduate schools – irrelevant to undergraduate applications.
A student’s personal network generally relies on family resources.
Expectations: The child is expected to work hard for admission to a top-ranked university – no discussion.
The student is unaccustomed in asking questions of authority figures. Because of the high status of teachers in China, if a student does not do well, the student receives most of the blame.