Sunday, January 28, 2018

Aiming High for College: 12 Tips

Note: This was my talk to students on Monday, January 29, 2018.

Welcome to National Catholic Schools Week--a chance to celebrate the mission and ministry of Catholic schools! The ultimate mission of every Catholic high school, however it’s phrased, is to get you into college and get you into heaven. We speak frequently about the faith side. Let me speak this morning about college. 

What are the things you can do to get into the best possible college?

To answer that question, it’s important to understand how colleges measure you when you apply. In a recent national survey, colleges claim the five most important criteria for admissions are: 1) Grades in college prep classes, 2) strength of curriculum, 3) ACT or SAT scores, 4) grades in all courses and 5) admissions essays. 

So all of these things, they say, are important. But I’ve been tracking this for over 25 years, and the evidence is that the greatest difference between selective schools and less selective schools is the ACT (or SAT) score. 

Let’s look at admissions stats from four familiar colleges: 

Auburn—average ACT 27, average HS GPA 3.85
Alabama—avg ACT 27, avg GPA  3.69
Vanderbilt—avg ACT 34, avg GPA 3.8
Notre Dame—avg ACT 33, avg. GPA 3.85


I want to call your attention to three things about these numbers:

First, note that the average ACT scores and GPA for all four of these schools are pretty high. Twenty years ago, to get into Auburn or Alabama was MUCH easier. You could almost regard them as a “fall back school” among your many college applications elsewhere. A 27 is somewhere around the 88th percentile. Since this is an average ACT score and not a minimum, you can get in with a lower ACT, but it’s getting tougher and tougher.

Second, while all of these GPA’s are high--doing well in school is important--grade point averages are NOT the differentiator between an Auburn or Notre Dame, which have the same G.P.A's. The takeaway is whether you get a 3.8 GPA or a 4.0 GPA, it’s not going to make much difference to your chances for getting into a selective school.  

Third, it’s obvious from these numbers that the ACT is the biggest differentiator. A 33 or 34 means you’re in the 99th percentile of college bound students. You may do everything right in your high school career—work hard, take good classes, have an amazing array of extracurriculars. But if you have a 25 ACT, then unfortunately, unless you’re a star athlete or a virtuoso musician, the very selective schools are not going to be interested in you. 

That’s a shame, because some of you are excellent students, with excellent GPA’s,  who would be a credit to any university, but just don’t test high. Why do they rely on national tests so much? From the university’s perspective, GPA’s are an unreliable way to measure students—they vary too wildly between institutions—a GPA of 3.8 here might mean something very different than a 3.8 at different school—so they use the nationally normed ACT or SAT test to make "apples to apples" comparisons. 

The 2nd biggest factor in admissions, more important than the actual GPA itself, is the difficulty of courses you’ve taken.  On the common application now used by hundreds of colleges, our college counselor is asked to rate the set of classes you’ve taken at St. Michael as “most demanding”, “very demanding”, “demanding”, “average” or “below average” compared to your classmates. If you want to go to a top school or get a top scholarship, if he has to put down as any thing less than "most" or "very," you won’t have much of a chance.

If, then, test scores and strength of curriculum matter so much, what can you do to improve your chances?  We must look first at what the ACT test measures. 

Surprisingly, the ACT does not assume advanced course work. The Math test, or example, is comprised of predominantly Pre-Algebra, Algebra I/II, Geometry and a few Trigonometry questions. Most of the Science questions are Earth Science, Biology or basic Physical Science. The English test is predominantly reading and grammar, whereas the Reading test measures comprehension and ability to interpret tone and nuance. 

By late junior year, when you should begin taking the ACT, you will have covered the necessary topics in high school. HOW you’ve covered these topics, however, is critical: 

Want to know why we do Science the way we do it at St. Michael? The ACT Science test places a heavy emphasis on interpreting data from experiments, drawing conclusions from charts and graphs and analyzing research. These are things you do almost every day in our science classes. 

On the ACT Math section, it’s all about looking at problems you might never have seen before, and trying to determine what kind of equation or tool you need to use to solve the problem. It isn’t a series of algorithms the teacher “shows you how to do.” 

The ACT reading section is all about picking out main ideas, discussing tone, reading through original documents, vocabulary. Why does Mr. Drake teach English as he does? Because grammar and writing are critical on the English test—just knowing what “sounds right” but not the actual grammar rules won’t take you far enough. 

I believe, on the whole, our classes do a  good job of prepping you for the ACT test. Work hard in these classes, and you’ll be on your way to doing well. 
But what else can you do to prep yourself well for college admissions? Here are 12 tips:

1) Focus on foundations. Everybody wants to race ahead. The reason we recommend so many of you who took Algebra I in 8th grade to take it over again in 9th grade is because Algebra I is the “grammar” of all the math that follows. It’s OK to take it another year to really get good at it. Not only will a firm foundation make the curricular “house’ sturdier throughout high school, remember that the ACT does not measure proficiency in Calculus!

2) Once in high school, take the most difficult curriculum that you can handle. What can you handle?  My criteria is this: “If you worked really hard, could you make a B in that class?” If yes, you should take it. In April we sign up for classes next year—“To AP or not to AP?—that is the question.” Yes, you might be able to make an A in a non-AP class with much less effort. But that’s not going to help you improve your ACT score as much, nor will Dr. Lindley be able to say “Most difficult” on the common app.  Remember, schools like Vandy and ND don’t care if you make a B every now and then. But they care a great deal whether you've challenged yourself. 

3) Grades, though important, matter less than people think, so forgive yourself on grades, but don’t cut yourself any slack on effort. This is what I tell your parents, too.  If you take demanding courses, you’re going to stumble from time to time.  That's OK. Focus on consistent effort and the grades will take care of themselves over time. 

4) Devote enough time to homework. Though it varies based on each student and the curriculum, we believe 10 minutes per grade level is a good minimum, so that 9th graders should be doing a minimum of 90 minutes, even if  “you don’t have that much”. There’s always reading to do, notes to review, a test to prepare for. Can you get away with less? Probably, but if you do less consistently, you need to erase competitive schools off your college wish list, because the kids applying to those schools are working harder than you.  

5) Say “no” more often. Many of you try to do too much, and there’s only so much time in a day—as a result our commitments become a mile-wide and an inch deep, including our commitment to our studies.  Most colleges, however, value depth over breadth. It’s better to be a 4 year member of the Academic Scholars Bowl team, with greater and greater responsibility and success each year, than to dabble with it one year and something else the next to pad your resume. Also, being part of an athletic team is terrific, but these days varsity athletes are expected to play their sports year-round, with club play and off season requirements.  Be careful you’re not playing too many sports to the exclusion of other good activities, the most important of which is serious study. We  can only do a few things well! 

6) Don’t stop reading. Many of you read much more as children, and somewhere around middle school, you stopped. The ACT is really a big reading test. That’s why we do a one semester Analytical Reading class in the  junior year. I strongly recommend you take that class. But one class won’t make a huge difference if you’re no longer reading at home.  How much you read is the single greatest predictor of future academic success.

7) Check to see if you meet the university's definition of a particular ethnicity. Most university admission departments have ethnicity targets--they hope that a certain % of their new students will hail from under-represented populations in their school--Hispanic or American Indian students, as an example. The College Board, in their PSAT Hispanic National Scholar competition, requires you to be at least 1/4 Hispanic, which means one of your grandparents are first generation from a Spanish-speaking culture. Schools vary in how they handle this, so ask them! Be sure to claim your ethnicity if you qualify, as it may improve your chances of acceptance and scholarship monies. 

8) Do something special that you’re passionate about that makes you stand out among the thousands of other people applying to your school of choice.  There was a girl in my previous school who had a really good idea: She realized that she, like many girls, bought expensive dresses for prom and homecoming and almost never wore them again. They just hung in her closet. So she started a charity and called it “One Pretty Dress,” inviting all the girls in her school and neighboring schools to donate their dresses after prom or homecoming. The following prom season, she advertised that anyone needing a prom dress, who didn’t have the money to buy one, could come to the school on Saturday morning and try dresses on. If they found one they liked, it was theirs to keep. I remember one morning, a poor woman from the downtown area came with her 17 year old granddaughter, and they found a dress she looked beautiful in. The grandmother, with tears of gratitude, could only say “Thank you.” Use your faith to inspire you to do something new, something original, something awesome, to serve other people. Even though it’s not why you do it, it will help make you a better candidate for college. 

9) Take the ACT three times. Why? Generally speaking, you’ll get better at it each time (practice and familiarity helps), and between the time you take each test, you’re getting smarter, especially if you take challenging classes. I recommend once in early semester junior year (February or April), once at the end of junior year (June or July) and once in your senior year (October). Also, some schools will “super-score” the best score from each section of the ACT you’ve taken and calculate your highest possible composite score,  which means you improve your chances of a better super-score if you take it a few times (You could take it more than 3 times, but you probably won't score appreciably differently than your first 3 attempts, and you need to keep your sanity!).

10) Make an “official visit” of 3-4 schools you may want to attend. I suggest this for two reasons: First, there’s nothing like visiting a school to pick up a “vibe” and see if you fit there. It’ll really help clarify things for you. But second, there’s an admission advantage to visiting. Why? Many schools are increasingly concerned about their “yield” stats. “Yield” is the percentage of students who actually enroll at the school once they are accepted. So if only 20% of the students accepted end up enrolling, it says the school is less desirable than a school with a 60% yield. But colleges know that if you’ve visited, it means you haven't just spammed your application to their school, and that you're truly interested--so if they accept you, they have a much better chance of getting you to enroll, driving their “yield” stats higher. So they may take a chance on you, even if you’re near their “cut” line.  Use Easter break and the summer to visit schools. Make it a fun, but informative trip. Be sure you register in the admissions office when you get there so they have it on record. 

11) Lean on our college counselor. Not all schools have "college counselors." Talk to him to help you clarify your future plans. He can help  you pick schools you have a reasonable shot at being accepted to and help with your application. 

12) Lean on God. He’s there to help too. Pray to him to give you stamina, to give you the desire to learn, to give you the grace to work hard, to reveal his will for you.  For most people, "which college?" is the biggest decision they make before they turn twenty. Ask him for guidance! 

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