Giving it a College Try

New York Post

By Jessica Tisch
August 21, 1999

If your child has just one more year to prep for college, you probably know it’s time to buckle down.

But what you may not realize is that there are a lot of good, practical ways to prepare for a process so many people dread. Here’s what you and your child need to know.

When college admissions officers read an application, says Katherine Cohen, the founder of a private college counseling company called IvyWise, they consider three main categories: the academic record, standardized-test scores and the personal record.

Sherronda Oliver, director of admissions at New York University’s college of arts and sciences, admits that a student’s academic record – his or her specific course work, grade point average (GPA), grade trends and standardized-test scores – is “of primary interest to any admissions officer.”

Then again, experts say, no school wants to fill its classes with hard-working “zombies.” So your child’s personal record – his or her “brag sheet,” personal essay(s), letters of recommendation and interview – can be just as important.

ACADEMIC RECORD

Your child’s high-school course work is crucial. College admissions officers want to see that your kid pushed himself in high school – that he went above and beyond the required curriculum. If he hasn’t already, make sure this year he takes advanced courses, tries his tongue at two languages, prepares himself for an AP (advanced placement) exam even if his school doesn’t offer the class or if he has to take an extra course at a local college or art school.

As far as course work goes, consistency is key. Not only shouldn’t students drop a class mid-year, but if they take a beginning class freshman year, they should be sure to follow through in subsequent years.

Your child’s GPA communicates to college admissions officers how he performed in relation to his peers. Obviously, colleges are looking for students with high GPA’s.

Admissions officers take into account the rigorousness of a student’s classes. The more challenging the class, the more understanding the admissions officer will be of a lower grade.

But not even great SAT scores will compensate for mediocre grades.

If your child’s grades left something to be desired in freshman year, don’t panic. College admissions officers like to see upward grade trends; they like to see a student’s grades improve each year as the courses get harder.

Robert Koppert, director of college counseling at the Dalton School, explains that “an upward grade trend gives evidence of the student’s maturity and commitment.”

By the same token, when filling out a college application, your child should explain any bad dips in his grades.

For example, if he got a C in math in the second semester of his sophomore year – when he also suffered a bad case of mono – be sure to have it explained on the appropriate form.

STANDARDIZED TESTING

Before you run out and hire a private tutor for your teen, consider some less expensive options for preparing him for the SATs. In fact, all you need is a stopwatch, the college board’s “10 Real SATs” book and a couple of pencils.

Arun Alagappan, founder of Advantage Testing, explains that the best way your child can prepare (on her own) for the SATs is to set aside 3 hours to take practice tests, once a week for 10 weeks before the actual exam. After each test, your child should calculate her score.

When she goes through the test, make sure the math questions she got wrong are explained to her. And since the same sets of words are used over and over again on the SATs, your child should make an effort to learn those that she’s unfamiliar with, advises Alagappan.

If your child still wants to take a test prep course, call the Princeton Review, (800) 2REVIEW or Kaplan Educational Centers, (800) KAPTEST.

For $895, the Princeton Review guarantees its students’ scores will rise 100 points above their first diagnostic exam. The program includes: six four-hour classes on test-taking techniques; six three-hour workshops for practicing these techniques; and four full-length practice exams.

For $859, Kaplan offers: 12 three-hour test-prep sessions, unlimited numbers of practice tests, flash cards and after-class tutorials. Kaplan claims the average student’s scores jump100 points after its prep course.

Remember that even though the SATs are important, cautions Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania, they “don’t contribute to the [admission board’s] decision nearly as decisively as perceived.” So while your child shouldn’t blow off the test, remind him that it’s not the deciding factor for college admission.The other standardized exams that many colleges look at are known as SAT II subject tests, and they’re offered in many subjects, including biology and English. Although some schools don’t require them, it looks great if your child takes more than three of these tests to demonstrate mastery of a particular subject. Both Barrons and the College Board have published comprehensive review books for these exams.

PERSONAL RECORD

Your child’s “brag sheet” – his list of after-school activities, work experience, hobbies and community service – is of the utmost importance to any college admissions officer.

The key to submitting a great brag sheet is “commitment and responsibility,” explains Ivywise’s Cohen.

The admissions officer wants to see that your child found something he was truly interested in. So, rather than being a member of every single club offered at his or her school, your teen should pick one or two school activities or clubs and stick with them.

Additionally, admissions officers choose candidates whom they feel are generous, goodhearted people. And one way a child can demonstrate this is through community service – and going beyond even what her high school demands. While applications may not specifically ask for such information, be sure to include mention of any volunteer work she’s done.

As far as paid work goes, make sure your teen holds down a job during high school. Work experience shows an admissions officer that the candidate is responsible. Cohen, a former member of the board of admissions at Yale, explains that “it is a definite negative to have never held a job.” The personal essay gives admission officers the opportunity to get to know their candidates’ character. It also gives students their only real opportunity to show admissions officers something about themselves.

The essay should be well thought out and written long before it needs to be submitted. Some things your child should avoid: bragging and merely listing his accomplishments; writing an analytical essay; using big vocabulary words he wouldn’t ordinarily use and writing about himself in the third person.

Instead, he should concentrate on one activity or experience and describe it in great and intimate detail. The best college essays demonstrate originality.

Final tip: Once the essay is finished, have your child ask an English teacher to review grammar, content and spelling.

Most college applications require two letters of recommendation from teachers at your teen’s high school. And, most applicants think that this section of the application is the one part in which they do not need to expend much effort. But, deciding who to ask to write these crucial letters, and providing these teachers with stamped, addressed envelopes is of great importance.

Your child should ask the teachers with whom he has developed a good rapport to write the letters; these are the people who will best be able to write about him not only as a student but also as a person.

While the interview at most schools is optional, experts suggest your child set up an interview at each school he’s considering. The interview gives the admissions board an opportunity to put a face to the folder.

Interview tips: make sure your child looks the interviewer in the eye, and talks clearly and thoughtfully. It also helps to interview the interviewer and to be familiar with the school and what it offers.

Here, too, a parent can help. Set up a mock interview with your child beforehand to practice eye contact and answers.

Who knows? Maybe it will also help calm your nerves.