The Road to College
By May S. Ruiz
For the August College Search Guide, I would customarily write that I hope your children got the chance to decompress and savor the summer break. These are extraordinary times, however. Our usual activities have been upended and we’re constantly challenged to get to a place of normalcy in our daily lives.
The announcement a few weeks ago that the Los Angeles and San Diego school districts will not be reopening their campuses for the Fall term until the foreseeable future caused much disappointment for students who have been learning remotely since mid-March. Parents of these students who, by default, became de facto teachers are as frustrated as they are exhausted.
Fortunately, the pandemic engendered tutoring services, some of which are conducted by high schoolers and college students, and are free of charge. These organizations, like ‘Sailors Learning,’ will continue providing assistance to elementary-age children, middle-, and high-schoolers through the remainder of this year. You and your children might want to take advantage of their help.
Much has been written about the negative effects of campus closures – including the loss of social interaction and students struggling with their schoolwork. For some high-schoolers, though, remote learning gave them relief – they got extra sleep, they were less stressed, they could email teachers questions without being embarrassed, they were able to focus on lengthy assignments – which made up for them not being able to hang out with their friends. Some even flourished – those who were typically behind got the extra time to catch up and ended the school year with excellent grades.
That said, the pandemic does not change the reality that every fall marks the time when the process of getting ready for college application begins – whether your children are just starting 9th grade or are already in 12th grade. The only difference is the pace at which they are working on their resume. They start building all the components that go into their transcript as soon as they get into high school. By the time they reach their senior year, they should have a transcript with excellent grades balanced with an equally impressive array of extra-curricular and enrichment activities.
This year’s ‘Back to School Night’ will undoubtedly be a virtual event and something you shouldn’t miss. There is so much going on which administrators need to inform you about – including an update on campus reopening safely and social distancing protocols they plan to have when that happens, to addressing issues voiced and implementing reforms advanced by the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement.
You and your children should determine their interests and career goals and see what courses the school offers which appropriately meet those. These should be the guidelines for your students during the four years they are in high school. The outcomes of their work then determine which colleges or universities they should consider when they put together their list of where to apply.
An important factor in the admissions process is the students’ (and parents’) preconceived ideas about where they should apply and what their dream school is. Oftentimes, kids apply to the same dozen or so most-recognizable university names. This creates an unreasonable expectation which, more often than not, leads to unhealthy behavior. There are innumerable institutions that offer excellent teaching; there is a school out there that is the right fit for your child.
High school is vastly different from middle school. Teachers have higher expectations from the work students turn in. Your children need to develop their analytical skills as their teachers will require deeper thinking and subject exploration from their papers. They should also have better time management skills to handle the more rigorous course load and extra-curricular activities.
In the first few days of 9th grade, your children will have several things they will be making decisions on, and tackling. I have to add here that high schools send their profile to the college or university to which your children are applying. Admissions officers will know what opportunities were available and if the applicant took advantage of them. I have listed them here with a brief description or explanation:
AP COURSES: Make sure your children choose the AP subjects they will need in the course(s) they will be taking in college. They shouldn’t pile up on APs to pad their resume because they will need to take the AP (and SAT II) exams for these subjects. Some universities only accept 4 or 5 on an AP exam for it to have any merit at all. While college admissions officers favor students who took on challenging AP subjects, they don’t look kindly on low AP grades either. Encourage your children to take courses they are truly interested in; students who study something they really like generally do well in it.
CLUBS: Your children should join the clubs they actually want to be involved in; encourage them to participate actively. Ideally, your children would start a society based on their interest or something they feel strongly about. It can be something socially impactful, or it can be a fun club for student members to take a respite from their heavy academic load. In my daughter’s school one student formed a Superhero Club where they went to all the openings of the latest Marvel or DC Comics films. Needless to say, this was years before the pandemic, when we could still go to the movies.
ATHLETICS: This is an essential component of high school life that is being severely impacted by the pandemic. As you most probably have heard or read, even professional sports are beleaguered by COVID-19 infections. Schools will be challenged to find a way students can participate in sports at this time.
ARTS CLASS: If your children’s school offers art electives, encourage them to take a course. Usually, in the first year, the grade level dean encourages students to try various classes on offer so they can determine what they really want to focus on in the next three years.
LANGUAGE: Besides the core subjects – English, History, Math, Science – a world language is a requirement for admission into college. In some elementary schools, students can take Mandarin and Spanish immersion classes. The Pasadena Unified School District, for one, offers French in addition to Mandarin and Spanish. If they continue on, these children will be ready not merely for college; they will be well-equipped for an increasingly global society.
COMMUNITY SERVICE: Your children should do something they feel strongly about and work it every summer; it shows commitment to the activity they took on. This is going to be an essential component in your children’s transcript. Admissions officers are looking for depth of community involvement.
SUMMER CAMP/ENRICHMENT COURSE: If your children have a passion for a particular activity, they should pursue a summer program related to it. Guidance counselors in some schools compile a list of the most engaging courses locally, out-of-state, or internationally.
It goes without saying that all the above activities are merely supplements to good grades in the core subjects. Loading up on extra-curriculars at the expense of grades is definitely ill-advised. While admissions officers at all the universities talk about their holistic approach in their selection process, a student’s GPA remains a very critical, if not the single most important, component of your children’s college application.
Your children have fully transitioned into high school, the demands of which were drilled into their subconscious the past school year. They have to put 9th grade behind them and face 10th grade with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
This is going to be your children’s busiest school year. Make sure your children confer with their school’s counselor to ascertain they have all the courses required for graduating and for college. They need to know what standardized exams they’ll need to take for the college application. They should research which colleges and universities offer the course(s) they would like to pursue.
By this time, your children should know where they will be applying and have visited the schools. They should have taken all standardized exams required for college applications, firmed up their college/university list, researched all kinds of scholarships, lined up teachers to write their recommendations, perfected their personal statement, and learned how to complete the common application.