Who gets admitted to top colleges?
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High grades and test scores are starting points, though admissions offices usually consider the context of a student’s environment and available resources. College admissions have changed dramatically even over the past few years. Colleges that used to be reasonably good bets for top students are no longer “safe schools”.

Extraordinary extracurricular activities or somehow making a real difference in the school or community invite institutions to take the student to a higher level of accomplishment. Highly selective colleges and universities seek not only excellent students but also those who align with the institutional mission. Though the emphasis is on “applying to college” – filling out a form and submitting it — understand that a symbiotic relationship exists between the institution and the students whom it admits.

Make the most of opportunities during the high school years.

How do you build a college list?
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The college list is about possible enrollment options to choose from, not a judgment of someone as a person.

Most students attend college within their state. Reasons may be homesickness, relatively low in-state tuition, or local employers’ familiarity with the programs of nearby institutions.For California students, universities within the state have become nationally and internationally popular. The rate of admission at Stanford is under 5%, and many others are under 20%. While dozens of excellent institutions exist in the State, many students explore curricular alternatives outside the State.

Part of my professional development is to tour campuses and meet with college representatives from across the country and beyond. I am happy to suggest opportunistic college detours during business travel or family excursions based on the student’s academic performance, extracurricular interests, and social inclinations. For example, a student in a large, very competitive high school might have little trouble navigating a large sink-or-swim public university, while a student in a small private high school might feel more connected to peers and faculty in a smaller college. In the junior year, adjustments to the list occur with more information on performance and identified preferences. While I am aware of college rankings, I also know that a thriving student is a far better situation than a struggling student. Grades do matter for getting into graduate school and often for obtaining employment.

 Ideally, by the beginning of the senior year, the student has an application list and deadlines for early to regular applications. Students can apply to any college that they desire, but the list should include colleges where admission is reasonably realistic.


What are good ways to compare colleges?
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Comparing colleges is like peeling an onion. While rankings may initially matter, eventually rising in importance is information about location, cost, academic offerings, extracurricular activities, and the logistics of the admission process. After enrollment, the focus shifts to the potential problems that could impede graduation.

Most overlooked until actual enrollment is an in-depth understanding of graduation requirements. Often called general electives or core curriculum, look at the number, scheduling, and variety of mandatory courses. Some can be fulfilled with passing test scores such as an AP exam. Choose courses carefully because 1) you’re paying for them, and 2) many can fulfill major prerequisites. Having an idea about your prospective major facilitates efficient curriculum planning. Popular courses can fill quickly.  A strongly related question is whether students have trouble getting the classes that they need.

The academic calendar determines the pace of instruction and intensity of work. No time definitions exist for the names of academic terms. Check out a college’s calendar and determine how long a term lasts. In general, semesters last 15 weeks (2 semesters per year) and quarters are 11 weeks (4 quarters per year with the summer quarter being optional). For example, in a semester system, calculus 1, 2, and 3 would take 3 semesters or 1.5 years to cover the material. In a quarter system, calculus 1, 2, and 3, would be covered from September through June – a much faster pace.

Many colleges with semester terms add a month-long term to the academic calendar. This allows flexibility for students, especially in technical majors where courses occur in series – missing Engineering 102 after taking Engineering 101 could mean having to wait another year before Engineering 102 is offered again. During month-long academic terms, students may study abroad, take a course, work, or stay at home.

Typically, students take an average of 15 units/credits/points per semester or quarter. Graduation in a semester system requires 120 units, and 180 units in a quarter system. Technical majors, such as engineering, may require more units. Avoid surprises: carefully read a college’s requirements for graduation before deciding to enroll.

A college’s graduation rate can be reported for 4 years, 6 years, or longer. Students may extend their time to graduation by taking a leave of absence with the college’s consent, or participating in a “co-op” – which is a semester or year earning money and getting real work experience in the area of their majors. (Co-ops are often entry-level positions in the work world. Tuition during co-ops is minimal or nonexistent. Colleges monitor how students are treated during their co-ops.) When the co-op ends, the student returns to college. Thus, a low 4-year graduation rate compared to a much higher 6-year graduation rate may hint at the existence of co-ops.

Internships can also provide work experiences without extending the four-year time to a bachelor’s degree. Internships are typically scheduled part-time during the academic year or full-time during the summer. Be clear about your goals because the quality of internships vary.

Why do you prefer working with freshmen or sophomores if applications are not done until the senior year?
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In most cases, I spend half my time identifying a student’s interests and college options before beginning the other half coaching application work. I like to begin with students at least by the beginning of the second semester of the sophomore year to set up the junior year – courses, testing schedules, and summer activities. Working with students earlier in their high school years can reduce time stress as students explore academic options, reflect on their experiences, and investigate further opportunities.

Everything that I do with a student is driven by college application forms. My initial questions begin with performance in classes, extracurricular activities, and possible college interests. The test prep discussion begins in the sophomore year. Writing essays begins during the summer before the senior year.

My overall fee is generally the same regardless of when I begin with the student. What does change is the payment plan, depending on the length of time of the engagement. My package is comprehensive to cover gaps often missed. For example, piecemeal work can result in essay assistance for students who later regret not applying to different types of colleges or not making the most of the high school years.

dinosaur bones

How long does it take to complete an application?
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While some students can finish applications in a few days and be admitted to top-ranked universities, 4-6 weeks is the typical amount of time for a student to gather information, organize it, write essays, and complete the application for a holistic evaluation. Because of time stress, CollegesGPS does not accept as clients students (and parents) who begin the college application process in the senior year.

How do you work with students on essays?
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My essay work with students is by email. I also read better without someone watching me read their essay. Sometimes, I like to think about an essay before responding. I do try to reduce stress as much as possible. Essay prompts may be available as early as late spring. The more that a student can accomplish during the summer, the easier the senior year will be. Students are free to ask questions about my comments.


How do you motivate students?
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True motivation comes from within the student, not from someone else. I am an advisor, and the admission process and deadlines are those of the student. I can set a schedule, build in flexibility, and help the student with troublesome steps as needed. But if the plan is ignored, I cannot get the student to the next step. If the student does not want to work on the components of applications – course rigor, grades, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, gaining familiarity with colleges, and applications including essay writing, the possibility exists that the student is not ready for college.

Many reasons can exist for unexpected under performance. Using a student planner, cleaning out the backpack every day, or organizing materials might help, but motivation is critical for any accomplishment in life. For example, a childhood interest in sharks evolved into a marine biology major, which required courses in calculus and organic chemistry, and led to STEM job opportunities. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Discussions with high school teachers or counselors may provide some insights about the student. Often, reviewing assumptions about the process and outcomes of “education” can identify options.

Who should submit an early action or early decision application?
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For early applications, EVERYTHING must be received by the college’s deadline, unless the college says otherwise. It can take 2 weeks for test scores to arrive at their destination. Also, the primary reason why early applications are accepted at a higher rate than regular applications is because they are qualitatively better.  Students most likely to be admitted early have a string of As, top test scores, activities that build year after year – and senior year is likely to continue this pattern. Students optimistic about improving their transcripts and test scores  during the 1st semester of their senior year may be better off applying later. Submitting too early could result in a denial and not a deferral to the regular applicant pool.

What are some ways that families can help their students?
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Try to see the world through your student’s eyes. Don’t overschedule and build downtime into routines. Some students may need help with time management and planning. Insist that the student work hard; do the best as one possibly can; get 8 hours of sleep, exercise, eat sensibly; and be kind. Limit extracurricular activities to 20 hours per week – that’s everything from school activities to videogaming and chats with friends.

Maturation is the accumulation of daily struggles as well as major achievements. A new world is opening for your student and may affect you too. Mind expectations and decision biases, and also keep a sense of optimism about the future.

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