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Ask the Experts: College Prep - You and Your Credentials

By Peterson's Staff updated on Sunday, January 27, 2013

Question Hi I am a homeschool graduate will that have a negative effect on me being admitted in college? - Trina

 

AnswerIn recent years, as the number of homeschoolers has grown dramatically, college admissions officers have become more aware of the strong potential for college success many of these applicants present. It is symbolically very important to note that most colleges now include on their applications for admission a check box for homeschoolers. If you can present clear evidence that you have completed the key foundation courses successfully through any combination of formal study programs (online courses, high school course curriculum) you should be okay.

We advise homeschoolers to present with their applications a portfolio of some independent projects they have completed and samples of their writing on an English or history project. Admissions test results from either the ACT or SAT are also very important factors. You should plan to study and practice for either test program as early as junior year to help your case. Also be prepared to write on the applications about your experience and reasons for doing your high school education by home schooling.

 

Question I heard that participating in community service will elevate the chance of college acceptance and that this may even be a requirement for college application. Is community service a high school graduation requirement or a college acceptance requirement? How early in high school should a student start? How should the record be kept to proof the validity? - Grace

AnswerCommunity service is becoming more common among high school students, and more formalized. Many public and private high schools have service requirements, and ask that you track your hours with your adviser or a central coordinator, who will often approve particular service activities and ask for confirmation from your supervisor. Even if you don't have a requirement, service is a good idea in and of itself, and for your personal development.

Is there a requirement to do service from the college admissions standpoint? No. Do colleges like to see that students have done things for others and gone outside their own interests and also stretched their boundaries and comfort zones? Yes. Yet you should not consider service some kind of check box that you need to fill in on the road to college. If you need to work to help pay bills and save money during high school, colleges will expect fewer volunteer hours from you. If you are a serious athlete or musician, you might have less time to spend volunteering in some of the "traditional" ways.

However, many students are able to take a talent or interest, such as sports, music, art, travel, language learning, and so on, and give back to their community, school, or others by sharing it. For example, students might tutor children in English as a second language, or play the violin at a senior center, or get involved in a sports program for the disabled. The opportunities and possibilities are endless. Colleges encourage students to pursue a couple of key talents and passions, and to make commitments, including to service, over the long term of their lives and high school careers.

 

Question I am a junior at a performing arts school in georgia and i was wondering how concentrating so much on one thing yet not neglecting my academics would affect me. (I have a 4.3 GPA and I am valedictorian of my class) - Stacey

 

AnswerAs long as you are taking a good, broad academic curriculum, your specialization will only help you, and you won't be limiting your options for college. If you choose to apply to performing arts colleges, your admission will be based largely on your auditions and experience. If you apply for more balanced liberal arts colleges and universities, they will appreciate your academic strengths and then your performing arts focus will help you to stand out. This will be the main extracurricular contribution you will bring to campus. You should plan to do a resume of your experiences in performing arts, and possibly a video or CD, as appropriate.

 

Question I am talking the hardest courses that a sophomore at my school can take. Will colleges recognize that? - Kiandra

 

AnswerYes. Your counselor will fill out a school report form for the Common Application and most other college applications. This report asks him or her to rate the level of difficulty of your curriculum compared to other college-bound students at your high school from most to least demanding. If you're at the most demanding end of the spectrum, you can bet that colleges will identify you as one of the strongest applicants from your high school, and someone who has challenged herself consistently.

 

Question I've been told by my friends that taking AP U.S. History was a mistake, because it caused my GPA to go down. I received a B for my 1st semester grade. If I had taken the regular U.S. History class I would have probably received an A like my other friends. Does the fact, I took harder courses taken under consideration and makes a difference or does the high GPA catch the eye of admission officers? - Teresa

AnswerThis is perhaps one of the most common dilemmas you face in high school course planning. Hands down, you are better off taking that AP class and getting the B. Is it "better" if you can get an A? Of course, but do your best, and your effort in the harder class will show colleges you challenged yourself instead of coasting through. If you were heading down into the C range or lower, or struggling to complete your work, or finding that the AP class was negatively impacting all your other coursework and activities, then it might be better to be in the regular or honors level course instead. But you will have the opportunity to show content mastery on the AP test and the American History SAT Subject Test (you should take both this spring), and doing well there can also show that despite the B rather than the A, you learned a lot in your class. A high GPA comes second to a strong curriculum in most instances.

 

Question I was wondering about Honors and AP. For three years I have taken Honors History classes and Academic English classes, but not much else. I keep my grades high and do well in both Honors and Academic, but will the lack of AP courses and Honors courses severely hurt my chances for more competitive schools? - Robert

AnswerColleges will look at how you took advantage of the academic opportunities available to you, and, yes, compare your choices to those of your peers in your school, as well as to students applying from other schools. We're not trying to foster competition between you and your friends, and you need to keep your own level of balance in your academic choices. However, if you are able to push yourself in a couple of key areas academically, that can help to show the more competitive colleges that you are a student striving to challenge yourself at the highest level possible. You might also find the more challenging courses to be better learning experiences.

 

Question Hi, I am entering my Senior year of High school and I have to get into all the classes I want, I either have to drop a science class or a math class. The way credits work out is that either can be dropped without a penalty to my GPA, but which one will look worse if quit Senior year? - Jenn

AnswerIt is more important to stay with math than with science usually. Most selective colleges want to see four years of English and Math, but science, history/social studies, and foreign languages are usually more flexible, with many colleges suggesting 2 to 4 years of study in these areas. Unless there's some significant rationale otherwise, you should stay with math. If you need/want another science, consider taking it this summer.

 

Question I am currently a junior and play field hockey varsity, participate in student government, and have an after school job. My mom thinks that I should be involved in community service somehow, but, I am not quite sure how I will be able to fit that into my schedule. How important is the community service aspect when applying to school and is there any other types of activities I can do which can make the same impression, but, not be as great a time commitment? - cait

AnswerThere is not a check-off list that an admission officer uses to see if you have done every required item necessary for admission. If you are playing competitive sports, doing student government (a form of service), and working, you don't need to add a lot of service, or necessarily any, to your list. Given that many high schools now require community service, this involvement doesn't stand out as much these days, unless you really put a lot of time into service because it is one of the main things you do. Stay with the things you're strong in right now, and, if you want to help out and give back, consider using your current involvements to do some service: coach underprivileged children in your sport; organize fundraisers or volunteer days as a student government leader; use some of your earnings to help a cause you care about.

 

Question My son is involved with his church, the boy scouts, and some other community outreach programs but none that are through his school. Can he include these as his extra-curricular activities or do only school sponsored activities count? What other areas could he be looking at? Thank you - Jennifer

AnswerYou'll find in looking at the Common Application (www.commonapp.org), which many selective colleges accept, as well as many individual college applications, that the "extracurricular activities" section has been broadened to include volunteer activities, personal hobbies, summer activities, and other involvements. Colleges are looking to see how a student has spent his/her time, including whether he/she had to spend a lot of time working to help support the family. So, all the activities "count."

 

Question Hello, what do colleges praise more highly: Being involved in more athletic activities, or more towards ones community? - Tiffany

 

AnswerThere is no ranking of activities to look to. Whether you do something, and to a high level, is more important than what you do. Now, one major exception to that is if you are actually recruited by a college for your sport. Actual recruitment is relatively rare. Most strong high school varsity athletes are never recruited for college play, even at the Division III level. A recruit will be at an advantage in the admissions process more than a volunteer or musician, because colleges actively seek athletes to fill their team rosters, and coaches are given a certain number of "slots" for strong contributors (with many variations depending on the college and level of play — see ncaa.org for more on recruiting practices).

 

Question My daughter is in 11th grade and very involved in Girl Scouts -- preparing for her Gold Award, is a member of the Senior Program Advisory Team and a Girl Scout Ambassador (two leadership positions at the council level), has attended National Convention as a visitor and applied to go to National Convention as a Delegate next year, and has helped run a Brownie troop -- but she's not involved in any school clubs. Will this hurt her on her application or are her Girl Scout activities strong enough? She is a member of the Spanish Honor Society at school and is an A student. - Alison

AnswerYour daughter's activities show her commitment, leadership, and outreach. If her Girl Scout activities take up such a large amount of time, she can describe what she has been doing and how much time she has spent with the Scouts and Brownies on her college applications. It will be clear that she did not have much time left over to do much at school. That is fine; however, we have also seen many instances where a scout (girl or boy) took lessons from his/her involvement outside school in order to have an impact in school, such as through organizing volunteer efforts (recycling clubs, Earth Day activities, trips to seniors' homes, etc.). Your daughter should consider ways in which to use her organizational and leadership skills to make an impact at school this year and next.

 

Question my school does not offer any extra-curricular activities that i enjoy. What should I do? - Kiandra

 

AnswerSeek out activities in your community and during the summer. If you have no activities at all, you will appear much too one-dimensional for colleges, no matter how strong you are academically. Maybe you should try a couple of new things at the school just to see if you like them, and consider student government as another way to get involved and show service and leadership if you do not like some of the club-type activities at your school. Many students are not heavily involved in their high school, yet are connected in other ways to community organizations, volunteering, culturally-oriented groups (such as traditional dancing), and so on. Others work quite a bit. Whatever it is, you need to do something.

 

Question what do you think? If I currently, in ninth grade, have a 4.166667, and have an A+ in English I, should I enter English honors with the possibility of receiving a B? - liam

 

AnswerThis is one of the most frequently asked questions by students of college admissions officers, and the standard response always is to take the opportunity to stretch one's academic abilities by taking the more advanced courses and do as well as possible. If you believe that you can attain a B+ grade or A– as your end of year grade you should go for the honors course. In the long run you are likely to be better prepared for the demands of a rigorous college curriculum this way. You are also more likely to score well on the SAT or ACT which are now placing greater emphasis on writing skills and knowledge of proper language usage.

 

Question How important are extra-curricular activities? - Aubree

 

AnswerPersonally, for your own enjoyment and development, they are very important. You should try to get involved in a few areas in high school and your community. You will make friends, connect to bigger worlds, and find long-lasting interests. For college, extracurriculars are a tipping factor that helps them determine who you will be on campus — an athlete, a musician, a student leader, an actor, a community service participant, and so on. Colleges look to build interesting classes constituting a diverse group of individuals, each of whom will be academically capable of handling the workload and getting a lot out of the college's programs, while at the same time contributing to the life of the campus and surrounding community. Extracurriculars are important, but not more important than academics, in most selective colleges' admissions processes. Seek a couple that you can commit to over the long term.

 

Question I am currently a sophomore and am in a very competitive pubic school which does not offer much one on one attention. I am considering going to a private school where there is far greater individual attention. Will it hurt my chances of getting into a good college if I change schools mid year? - John

AnswerFirst of all, most private schools don't offer a lot of mid-year spots, but if you find one that does and you get in, make sure that there will be as seamless as possible a transition in your curriculum and that you will not be set back academically by changing schools.

Second, consider waiting until your junior year to make the move. Finish this year strongly, and then plan to spend the next two years at the private school. Colleges will appreciate your reaching out for more challenge and a better fit. If you do well during your junior and senior years, the move should not hurt, and may help you. If you find you respond better to the individual attention offered at the private school, you will likely do better, and thus will improve the likelihood of getting colleges that fit you well.

 

Question Do schools look at your grades, transcript, and applications differently if you go to public school vs. private school? Are there general categories for each which differentiate the more competitive and less competitive schools? - cait

 

AnswerSchools look carefully at two key elements of your college admissions applications which are specifically tied to your high school: your transcript, and your school profile. Your transcript shows your course choices and grades over time, as well as honors and awards, and often a description of how your high school grades, weights, and ranks its students. Some admission officers describe the admission process as being "transcript heavy." That is, this is the most important element in your file — it shows how rigorous a course load you have pursued, and how well you have done. If your school ranks, which many private and competitive public high schools don't, your rank in class will appear here, too.

A key part of the process for admissions readers is determining how much you took advantage of the resources available to you. That's where the profile comes into play. The school profile shows more characteristics of your high school. Some profiles are more in-depth than others. They may show the honors and advanced courses available to students, how many students go on to four-year colleges and where they matriculated last year, average SAT scores, AP results by class, and so on. Colleges compare your transcript and school profile to get a sense of where you are in your particular class and school, and how you have sought out challenges accessible to you.

To get to the question at hand, some private and public schools offer more resources to students, and if you take good advantage of them, you stand to do well in college admissions. Others offer few advanced courses or extracurricular activities, but if you did all you could at your school, and even went outside the school to take summer classes or classes at your local community college, you could show how much you have tried to excel in getting ready for college.

Some of the demanding college prep independent schools out there have lots to offer students, and have excellent college placement records. So do many public schools. In each case, you should evaluate the public school opportunities available to you, and consider which private (or parochial) day or boarding schools might offer you a better education that fits your needs.

 

Question I would like to attend Oxford University in England. I am in 9th grade and love my high school. My high school currently offers 10 AP subjects (Calc, Physics, English, World History, etc.) I have the opportunity to attend a different High School that offers the International Baccalaureate (IB) program.

My question: What would be of greater benefit to my application to Oxford: Stay at my current HS or attend the IB program? Would your answer change regarding the highly selective US colleges? - Sarah

AnswerWe are impressed by both your lofty ambition to attend a highly selective university like Oxford University in England or an American university, and your planning so far ahead to convert your ambition into a reality! Early planning in creating a strong school curriculum is one of the key steps to successful college admissions.

Rest assured that both academic approaches will present you with strong college opportunities. By planning your schedule this early in your high school career, you should be able to enroll in a number of the AP courses your present high school offers. The British universities expect candidates to have a more advanced level of preparation in a fairly narrow academic discipline. Students apply for particular colleges within the larger university on the basis of their intended field of study. So you would want to take those AP courses that match up with your specific interests. For example, you would want to emphasize the math and sciences curriculum OR the history and social studies courses OR the literature and writing courses. It is your call to determine your own academic interests and plan your course program accordingly. This same plan would certainly prepare you to qualify for American universities as well.

The International Baccalaureate curriculum is universally recognized. British universities welcome candidates who have completed the IB curriculum since it is quite rigorous and comprehensive. American universities also welcome applicants who have completed the IB successfully.

Oxford University requires applicants to interview on campus with the head of the academic department you wish to study in. It is an intensive screening to determine if the student has a solid background in the discipline. Thus more advanced preparation is required than American colleges would require at the entry level.

If you are happy at your present high school and feel you will qualify for the appropriate AP courses, then feel comfortable in remaining there.

 

Question Is doing many activities such as sports, clubs, and community service a big factor in getting in? - Joyce

 

AnswerThis comes under the "pursue your passions" step. That is, focus on a couple of key areas of interest to you and pursue them to the highest level possible. It is great to be well-rounded, and to try lots of things as you go through high school. At some point, you will feel some pressure to cut those things you're not terribly interested in or making a big contribution to. It doesn't matter WHICH activity area you pick, just WHETHER you have shown commitment and focus in one or two key activities. Sometimes, a theme emerges, such as a longstanding interest in community service and volunteer work, or a serious athletic talent, or activities and classes associated with international relations. Your personal qualities and extracurriculars are an important factor in admissions. Once you are in the ballpark in terms of your courses, grades, and standardized test scores, colleges will look at those other strengths you could bring to campus.

 

Question I go to a very small, private Christian school. Would it be to my advantage to move to a larger school for the rest of my junior year and senior year? - Brittany

 

AnswerIt depends on whether you have run out of challenges at your current school. If you feel you cannot take demanding courses that you would like to take, or don't have access to resources and activities that are very important to you, then you might want to consider looking at other options, including your public high school. The key pieces that colleges will be looking at after your 11th and 12th grades will be how you took advantage of the resources available to you, and how successful you were. If possible, you want to graduate in the top third of your high school class. If you are hoping to attend a most competitive college, then think more in the top five to ten percent.

You also need to consider whether the change in environment would suit you well: would the new school be too large, the classes too impersonal, and the teachers less accessible? Would you miss the "values" component of your current school? Are there ways to make your current environment more enriching, including taking courses at a local community college or pursuing summer enrichment programs, which would allow you to stay put for another two years if your school is working for you?

 

Question My grades so far have been iffy. I am a sophomore in high school and I was wondering if my grades my freshman year will make as huge an impact as my junior and senior years' grades. You can tell that my strengths do not include math and science through my previous report cards, but even if I pull those grades up, will it already have blown my acceptance chances to NYU? - Julia

AnswerNo, your freshman year grades are not nearly as important as those in your second two years of high school. Sophomore year is important, too, especially as you can show that you have improved over ninth grade, and good grades this year will help you transition into tougher advanced courses next year. If math and science aren't your best subjects, make sure to keep sufficient progress in them to meet the requirements for entrance to a selective college like NYU, but don't feel you need to take the most accelerated courses in those areas. Push yourself in English, foreign languages, history, and/or other areas that suit you better, and apply as someone interested and skilled in those subjects.

Yes, your overall cumulative GPA will be lower than it might have been, given your below par first year of high school, but progress over time and an increase in the difficulty of your curriculum will usually be noticed and valued by selective college admission officers.

 

Question This year I took 4 ap classes, Calc, English, Bio, and Chem. I took 2 AP sciences because I want to be a science major in college. Also, i am involved in my HS's marching band, which completely ties up my fridays and saturdays. By the time Sunday rolls around, i am too exhausted to get a lot of work done. My AP Calc teacher is very demanding, and is moving through the material at an astonishing pace. I have become quite behind on my Calc work, and my grades are suffering. I know that if i devote all my time to catching up on Calc, my other classes will be compromised. Should i wait it out until band season is over to catch up on Calc, or completely kill myself right now? It is not possible to drop any of my classes, and I want to know how it would look to the college admissions if i did adequate in my other 3 AP classes first semester, but not too well in Calc? - Ryan

AnswerThis is a tough question, which illustrates a really common senior year dilemma. You are taking the equivalent of a tough freshman year curriculum at college, and still trying to maintain an activity that has been important to you. One big issue here is that calculus is very important to your future success in the sciences, both in high school and when you get to college. It is also a cumulative course. You can't just stop working in it for the next two months and then expect to pick it up in January, as you might be able to do in a literature class, for example (though we wouldn't recommend it!) where you could miss some readings but start fresh with others.

You should meet with your teacher and discuss your concerns. Talk with him/her about your goals for this year and in college. See if you can work out a study schedule, and ask about what the requirements will be into the next few months. You may need to pull back from your band involvement to get through the fall, which is so important for the rest of the year, and for college admissions. If you are applying as a potential science major, it could definitely hurt you to get lower grades in math or science now, and miss work you'll need for later on.

 

Question I am in a Law Studies class and the teacher is also the mock trial coach. He wants me to join the mock trial team but I am on a traveling basketball team as well as my high school basketball team so I would have to try and balance the three practices and end up missing a few of each...but my teacher says that mock trial will look excellent on my transcripts...will it really make much of a difference as to what colleges I get in? - Ashley

AnswerIt sounds like basketball is a major involvement for you. That's great, if you want to try to enter the college recruiting process. Even if you do, though, many colleges will want to see your academic credentials and interests. Something like mock trial is a co-curricular activity that would expand on your law studies class and help prepare you for college level seminars and activities like debate. You may also find you are good at it, and decide to pursue law as a career. If you can keep up basketball, work with your coach to find some time away from games or practices for key trial events, and establish mock trial, law studies, and perhaps history and government as key academic and co-curricular interests, you could have a very strong college profile. This would be especially true at Division III liberal arts colleges, which are most interested in enrolling "scholar-athletes."

 

Question How important is community service? Between school, homework and sports there is little time left for anything else. Is it ok if your community service is limited? - Chris

 

AnswerCommunity service, or volunteer work to help others, is good in and of itself, and we hope everyone will find some way to give back to his or her community and school. If you do a lot of activities or need to work many hours to put money away and help support yourself, then you may not have a lot of time available to volunteer. Some high schools may require a certain number of hours of service to graduate, so regardless of your other commitments, you might need to work in some service hours during each year of high school.

We like to recommend finding a service commitment that you care personally about, and establishing a long term connection to, that activity. While a trip to a far flung country to perform a month's worth of service, work on language skills, and find some adventure can become a great developmental and educational experience for you as you help people in need, you are certain to find many people close to home who need your help. Using your talents — whether playing piano, building houses, moving furniture, or serving meals with good cheer — over the long term, will likely mean more to you, to those you help, and, yes, even to colleges.

 

Question I am studying abroad right now for my junior year of high school. Is this a "desirable" characteristic that will help me get in to college? Is there anything I should be doing here to better my chances of getting into a good college? - Mary

AnswerHow fortunate are you to have the opportunity to study abroad while in high school! We assume you chose to do this because of an interest in a foreign language, cultural studies, or international affairs. Any and all of these interests and on site exposure will impress college admissions officers. You should detail in interviews and application essays why you chose to study abroad and what you have gained from the experience. Quite naturally you should consider applying to those colleges whose academic programs and outside activities match well with your interests and potential fields of study.

 

Question I want to be a high school exchange student for next year. However, this could severely lower my GPA- should I still do it? - Sharon

 

AnswerThere is a lot you can gain from doing an exchange, educationally, personally, developmentally. If your GPA goes down, that is not the end of the world, as long as you are learning new things, taking good courses, and still preparing for college entry (taking appropriate tests, researching schools, etc.). If you are going abroad as a sophomore, you have time junior year to recover your GPA and continue to work on the college process. Early applications could still work for you. But if you are going abroad as a junior, then an early application is not your best bet. You would do better to return to the U.S. and spend senior fall and winter working on strong grades, good college applications, your standardized testing, and so on. If doing the exchange lowers your GPA, you can explain this to colleges in a cover letter or part of an essay, and your school guidance counselor can reinforce this in his/her report.

 

Question I went to a pre-college program at UNC this summer and took college credit courses. Do I have a better chance of getting in at UNC? Does this give me an advantage? - susan

 

AnswerTypically, attending a summer program at a college does not give you better odds of admission at that college. That is especially true of general pre-college programs, as opposed to music, architecture, or other specialized programs where you might have been taught by regular faculty of the university, some of whom actually help make admissions decisions for their school.

Proving that you can do well in rigorous college-level courses or high level high school academic programs will help you show your readiness for college, and would be true at UNC and any other colleges you apply to. All will appreciate your efforts during the summer to stretch yourself academically. If you had courses with UNC faculty and you did well with them, you might contact them for a supplemental recommendation letter for your regular admissions application to the university. Knowing you, how you did in their class, and what the university requires, they might be able to write strongly on your behalf in terms of your qualifications for entering UNC.

 

Question I was reading about your suggestions on presenting a portfolio for the person asking about becoming a writer. Do you have any suggestions for aspiring math majors? - jaimie

 

AnswerMany mathematicians, or possible engineers, can accumulate a strong resume of math-related activities, though not likely an actual portfolio. Students we have counseled have participated in high school JETS (junior engineers) competitions and other math contests, Westinghouse/Intel science competitions, summer pre-engineering programs, high level college math courses at community colleges or places like Harvard or Stanford summer schools. They have also put together a top set of SAT and SAT Subject Test scores (including the Mathematics Level 2, and at least one science, if not both Physics and Chemistry). AP scores in Statistics and Calculus can also help. Research work with faculty doing papers and presentations. Tutoring younger students. Setting up high school computer networks. There are many things a math-focused, science-focused, history-focused, or other area-concentrating student can do to highlight his/her strengths and interest in a particular discipline.

 

Question Is it better to get a "B" in an AP class vs an "A" in an honors class? My parents say I should take the harder classes, but, I wonder if it's still the best idea when a school looks at my application. - jared

 

AnswerIt's better to get an A in an AP or honors class. In general, yes, it's better to stretch yourself in your high school program and to show that you are pushing yourself intellectually. Curricular strength is the number one factor in admissions, so, within reason and your ability to balance your activities and still get a good night's sleep, take the hardest curriculum that interests you and which you can handle. If you get Bs, so be it, but you'll probably be learning more, and showing a lot of effort and initiative. If you get high SAT Subject Test scores and Advanced Placement (AP) scores because you learned a lot in the classes, the colleges will respect that you had some teachers who were teaching well and grading tough. Since you can't take AP everything, try to push yourself most in those areas of particular strength and interest.

 

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