Welcome to my series opener of College Admissions blogs where I’ll be documenting my process of testing, applying, reacting, and selecting for the year!
I am a senior at my public high school (we have a student population of ~2,000). At the beginning of my freshman year, I found the Robotics lab and it is still where I spend most of my “free” time. After discovering computer science, I joined Business Professionals of America (BPA) where I compete in Visual Basic/ C++ Programming. Because I wanted to amp up student involvement in extracurricular activities, I joined Student Council and National Honor Society (we are in the process of starting clubs, programs, workshops, and other miscellaneous events).
While I’m no Olympic mathlete or worshiped artist or kid-genius (not even an ISEF participant), I’ll be applying to selective schools with solid engineering or science programs through the QuestBridge National College Match (NCM) program alongside the Common App.
My Beginner’s Advice:
As a first generation student, I have the honor of dissecting this process myself, but I have already learned quite a few tricks (from trial and error or hearsay) that I wish someone had given me as advice earlier instead:
1. The college admissions process begins day one of high school.
Grades on your transcript are the first and most important factor in even the holistic review of your application. Keep that GPA high and those grades pristine if you wish to be considered as a competitive student capable of succeeding in college-level classes.
Some schools will also ask for a School Profile, so make sure that you are taking the top level classes available to you, whether they are IB, AP, dual-credit, or advanced. Having taken college-level courses in a subject that interests you will reassure the admission officers that you like to learn and want to continue your education. With the help of the internet, however, you can further show initiative by taking online classes, whether they are computer programming, political science, astronomy, business literacy – whatever floats your boat.
2. Take your standardized tests to ace them the first time.
My guidance counselor advises students to take the SAT/ACT once to see how they do and then take it the second time later if they want to improve their score. This isn’t for everyone. Instead, these tests should be taken once each in your junior year and both should be aced the first time. How do you ace them? You study for them. More on studying for standardized tests below. I took my first ones without studying and that was not only a waste of money but a waste of time as these tests are offered only about once a month. Colleges want to see either one set of scores you’re proud of or two or three sets of scores that show positive progression.
The PSAT enables you to receive merit scholarships on a state and national level. If you begin studying for it at the beginning of your sophomore year, not only will you have self-learned some concepts that will make future chapters of math and language classes easier, but a national merit scholarship will help you finance your education. I had no clue what the PSAT was, so I woke up, went to school as normal, took the test, and tossed the score report in the recycling bin. Don’t do what I did.
The SAT II (a.k.a. Subject Tests) are sometimes required or recommended by selective schools or certain programs (for example those wishing to go into STEM should take a science and a math). If you’re not sure what you want to go into, it’s good to take two that present you as a well-rounded student and can strengthen your application. Make sure that these are also scheduled into your studying. You can take 3 tests (each an hour long) in one sitting, so study for all three if you plan to do that!
3. Get involved, explore, and develop a passion.
My #1 pet-peeve has become admission officers, guidance counselors, even parents encouraging kids to “find your passion.” No. I’ll give you the same advice I give my brother: pick one to two things that even slightly interest you and take the next four years to develop your interest and contingent skills by joining clubs, reading, seeking on-site experience, shadowing, interning, watching movies, asking questions, etc. Whatever it may be, hone it and take it as far as you can. Just because you did XYZ in high school will not limit you to do ABC in college – instead, you will have XYZ skills where the next guy over may have only ABC or no skills in comparison. You will have all the more interesting stories to share and a fresh perspective to add.
4. Spend your summers wisely.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, you didn’t grow in a day, and your character wasn’t built in only 3, 5, or 9 months. Colleges know that, and they want to see the kind of person you are outside of the classroom. If you held a job or shadowed or interned, great – there’s a slot for that. If you attended a summer camp or volunteered, great – there are slots for those too. I’ll caution you that there are no slots for summer vacation or laying in bed all day, although it’s understandable that those are necessities for a high schooler too.
This summer, I attended a summer camp/program, but I had to apply way early in the fall/winter and got results in the spring. Start these applications early too: they are like mini-College applications that are great practice. Go on, pursue a passion and develop it. Or, just explore something totally different! Experience is the greatest teacher.
5. Build a supportive network.
If you’re involved in school and your community, maintain good grades, study for good scores, and know how to have productive fun, then your teachers/principals/employers/counselors/family will love getting an update from you every once in a while about your cool agenda. Your supportive network will contain an abundance of people who are kept in the loop and look at you with hope in their eyes while they shower you with all the knowledge and resources they can muster. Take advantage of their gifts – tell them you appreciate them often, send an e-mail every 3 months, say hi in the hallway, ask for help or their advice, etc.
Build and maintain this net and you will have plenty of individuals who advocate and cheer for you (and will be honored to write recommendation letters, read essays, be mentors, and send opportunities down your way). Don’t forget to say thank you!
My August Update:
School began this month and I already feel the weight of AP classes. My goals for August were registering and studying for standardized tests, applying to Fly-In programs, reading the essay prompts and questions on the Common App and the NCM application, and taking reflective notes on myself throughout the month.
I plan on applying to 3-4. Although their deadlines are a bit later, I gave myself the deadline of completing their applications August 21st – a week or two before they are due. All pose the question “why this school” so I have been forced to complete sound research on some of the schools I am interested in well ahead of time.
In July, I created a Common App and a QuestBridge NCM account, allowing me to deduce a grocery list of all the deliverables I’ll need to have for my application. The NCM deadline is September 27th, so expect a heated update next month about all the college application details.
My first step from there was creating a detailed and dated résumé of clubs/activities I’ve been involved in and awards I have received. Although I won’t be shipping this résumé anytime soon, it serves as a timeline to form my thoughts around. I have highlighted which aspects of my involvement are most important to me, such as my proudest moment (how, where, when it happened), challenges I overcame, an idea or concept I am currently obsessing over or would love to develop more, what I do for fun, and my favorite memories.
As I go throughout my day at school or at home, I jot down essay ideas or topics I have material for that I could expand upon. When I hear someone describing me, I got it down too because the purpose of the college essays and application is to get to know you in the context (a.k.a. community) you are growing up in.
With a week left until the August SAT, I will be studying and practicing using Princeton Review books from my local library. It doesn’t stop there, as I’ve registered for my third ACT in September in hopes of improving in 2 areas for the sake of colleges that superscore.
Next month, I will send e-mails asking to meet with teachers to discuss strong recommendation letters, begin drafting college essays, and continue studying for my Subject Tests all while navigating Calculus and Physics homework, organizing fundraisers, and planning for a middle-school camp – with coffee in one hand and a notebook in the other.
For now, wish me luck. I hope to see you in the September!
ACT – a national college readiness test that lasts 3-4 hours and covers English, Math, Reading, and Science Reasoning sections with an optional Essay; fast-paced; I recommend borrowing Barrons ACT Test Prep books from your local library to take practice tests; score scale from 1 to 36.
AP – Advanced Placement college-level courses you can take in high school and earn college credit and placement by scoring well on AP tests; scores range from 1-5, with 5 being the best; scores are not required to be sent to most colleges but can strengthen your application; I recommend studying throughout the whole year by taking free online prep courses during your breaks (edX has available test prep for the STEM courses).
Business Professionals of America – BPA is a Career and Technical Student Organization for students pursuing careers in business management, information technology, finance, office administration and other related career fields; occurs in three levels: middle school, high school, and collegiate; compete in events, community service, and student government against students from across 25 states and Puerto Rico.
Common App – an application platform through which you can apply to over 800 colleges using one application; pay fees separately or have your fees waived; send standardized test scores separately.
dual-credit – college-level courses with a curriculum conducted by a partnering university/college which allow students who pass the course to have a college transcript with credits that, at a minimum, the school that sponsored the course will honor; some credits are eligible for transfer to another college or university; sometimes pay a small fee during high school versus paying hundreds for the same course at that university/college.
finding the right fit – every student and admission officer’s goal when reviewing applications; assessing the correspondence between a school’s and student’s qualities; depends on factors like financial aid, location, return-on-investment, faculty-to-student ratio, demographics, campus size, student clubs and culture, undergrad research or work study opportunities, study abroad, sports/extracurriculars, campus dining, dorm amenities, safety, curriculum, and more!
first generation student – neither parents hold a 4-year or Bachelor-equivalent diploma.
Fly-In programs – Fly-In programs can be found either on the page of the institute you’re interesting in visiting or by just searching “fly-in programs for juniors/seniors” online. They provide prospective students an opportunity to experience the campus and setting for 1-3 days. I recommend reading Merrina Lan’s advice on why visiting colleges is vital to finding the right fit and how to make the most of your visits. (P.S. She includes a list of fly-in programs and deadlines!)
GPA – Grade Point Average; a measurement of student’s academic record dependent on the grade she got in each class per semester; weighted if the school places importance on college-level courses, unweighted if the school does not consider the course level in calculations.
holistic – flexible, individualized way of assessing an applicant’s capabilities by which balanced consideration is given to experiences, attributes, and academic metrics and, when considered in combination, how the individual might contribute value as a student of certain institution (AAMC); basically admission officers try to approximate the applicant as how they might thrive on an institution’s campus.
IB – International Baccalaureate program designed in Switzerland with the purpose to give students around the world a chance to earn a rigorous, internationally recognized diploma which they could use for entry into universities; must attend IB-approved school and meet requirements, including taking classes in the six subject groups, passing IB exams, and completing three additional core requirements (PrepScholar).
internship – entry-level positions that may be paid or unpaid and are temporary; an exchange of services for experience between the intern and the organization; learn about different career fields.
ISEF – Intel-sponsored International Science and Engineering Fair for students; publishes student science research in own newsletter; branches include Science Talent Search (STS) which is a highly regarded science contest for high school seniors and MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars) competition for middle school students; find a teacher willing to help you participate if you are interested in STEM and research.
mathlete – famous math competitions for high school students include the American Mathematics Competition (AMC/AIME/USAMO) and the Harvard-MIT Math Tournament (HMMT).
National College Match – college and scholarship application process that helps outstanding low-income high school seniors gain admission and full four-year scholarships to the nation’s most selective colleges.
National Honor Society – nationwide organization for high school students in the U.S. and outlying territories which consists of many chapters in high schools; selection is based on four criteria: scholarship (academic achievement), leadership, service, and character.
PSAT – a three hour long Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test standardized test administered by the College Board offered to sophomores and juniors; score scale from 320 to 1520.
QuestBridge – platform that connects the nation’s brightest students from low-income backgrounds with leading institutions of higher education and further opportunities; includes the QuestBridge Prep Scholar program for juniors, National College Match for seniors, and QuestBridge Network for successful applicants.
recommendation letters – a requisite for college admissions; letters written by teachers, guidance counselors, coaches, or community members that vouch for the student’s capabilities and further allows admission officers to understand the applicant as a citizen of their community.
résumé – a one-page summary of a person’s education, qualifications, and previous experience, typically sent with a job application.
Robotics – growing extracurricular activity across the globe, with 5+ organizations that may already be hosted at your school: FIRST Robotics, Zero Robotics, BattleBots IQ, VEX Robotics, and Botball. This is a great outlet for budding engineers and computer programmers. Join Robotics or start a team at your school!
SAT – a national material mastery and college readiness test that lasts 3-4 hours and covers Reading, Writing & Language, and Math with an optional Essay; I recommend borrowing the Princeton Review SAT Test Prep books your local library to take practice tests; score scale from 400 to 1600.
SAT II – also known as Subject Tests, 20 multiple-choice standardized tests given by the College Board on individual subjects; taken to showcase a student’s strength in subject area for admission to colleges in the United States; score scale from 200 to 800.
School Profile – piece of collateral put together by your school (usually a brochure or flyer) that includes information about the student body and the types of classes offered by your school, such as AP, IB, etc.; lists figures like graduation rate and other notable facts about the school, though each one is different; submitted by counselor.
selective schools – colleges/universities which admit students on a basis of some sort of selection criteria or most often holistically; usually accepts less than 20% of applicants and is an often private school; includes the Ivy Leagues.
shadowing – a partnership typically between an educational establishment and a business to provide an experience for a student of what it is like to perform a certain type of work by having them accompany an experienced worker as they perform the targeted job; partnerships can also be established individually – just ask.
standardized tests – national or state tests that are often required for undergraduate admission or high school graduation; include the ACT/SAT, Subject Tests, and AP/IB exams among others like the PLTW, Accuplacer, and TOEFL; makes it possible to compare the relative performance of individual students or groups of students; STUDY FOR THEM.
superscore – some colleges will consider your highest section scores across all of your testing dates for standardized tests.
Student Council – a group of students elected by their peers to address issues of concern and organize student events and activities.
transcript – (a.k.a. report card) an official record of a student’s work, showing courses taken and grades achieved during all four years.
Visual Basic/C++ Programming – two programming languages of the many you can learn! I encourage anyone to become computer science literate – it’s EZ.
volunteering – working without pay but out of the goodness of your own heart; Boys and Girls Clubs, churches, national parks, food pantries, local libraries, art museums, political campaigns, Habitat for Humanity sites, animal rescue shelters, and the YMCA all need volunteers!