Preparing for College

Advice for First-Timer Parents of 10th Grader

Question: We were wondering if you could give us any help on some of the criteria colleges will be looking for on my daughter's applications AND during the interview process. We are first (child) time college "pursuers" and are a bit clueless to all this. Besides the obvious GPA and SAT scores, what else do they look for and what if my daughter's school does not offer a lot of groups, clubs, extracurricular activities and what not? She is a sophomore in high school who wants to go pre-med but is afraid with all the competition of bigger schools, her resume will fall short. She has straight A's and is in all the honor classes her school offers, but sadly that is not many. She is on student council and also Beta Club and is currently looking to become a Candy Striper at our local hospital and a Big Sister of America. What else do they look for? Thank you

Admission officers evaluate applicants in the context of what is available to them at their high schools. So if your daughter's school offers limited honors or Advancement Placement classes, she won't be penalized. On the other hand, admission officials at the most selective colleges (i.e., those that accept roughly 25% or fewer of their applicants) often find that the students in their applicant pools have gone out of their way to find academic challenge via summer programs, online classes, local community college classes (etc.), if sufficient rigor isn't offered at their high schools. While seeking out such enrichment isn't an admissions imperative—even at the most hyper-competitive colleges—it can certainly help. (To find out a college's approximate acceptance rate, you can use the “Search" function on the College Board Web site. Type in the school's name here: and then follow the links to the profile. You'll see the percentage of applicants accepted under the “Type of School" heading.)

As for extracurricular activities … colleges that admit roughly 50% of their applicants or more (which is the vast majority of colleges) put most of their emphasis on grades, course selection, and test scores (if the latter are required). They usually expect the students to be doing something outside of the classroom—whether it's sports, school clubs, music, volunteer work, or even a paid job. The more selective a college is, the greater the expectation of extracurricular “success." At the hyper-selective schools, being Spanish Club president won't carry as much clout as being student body president … and achievement on the community or national level isn't uncommon either. Moreover, at these “elite" places, admission folks have seen more than their share of the standard high school extracurricular fare (debate societies, yearbooks, newspapers, Beta Club, etc). They are also swamped with Candy Stripers and other hospital volunteers. So, although these pursuits are certainly very worthwhile, the higher up the admissions “food chain" you travel, the greater the expectation of achievement in unique areas. Note, too, that some of the most interesting extracurricular activities can be those that a student concocts and pursues on her own. For instance, check out this “Hidden Extracurriculars" thread on College Confidential to see what I mean:

If your daughter continues to be interested in pre-med, she should keep on doing what she's doing now … earning good grades in the best classes she can take and showing interest in this field through her volunteer work. She might also consider summer enrichment classes in a related area or she can continue her volunteer work (or take on other health-related endeavors) in her free time. When she's ready to apply to college, it might work in her favor to take SAT Subject Tests in biology for sure and also chemistry and/or physics, even if the colleges on her list don't require them.

As for interviews, my rule of thumb is this: The more selective the college, the less important the interview. While a strong interview can certainly help a borderline candidate, this is not as likely to happen at the most competitive colleges. (Friends and colleagues of mine who serve as alumni interviewers for such schools as Harvard, Yale, and the University of Pennsylvania often lament that their top-rated interviewees still end up in the “Reject" pile. :( ) “Good" interviews are typically those where the student seems excited about the college in question, has done her homework on the place so can speak convincingly about why this school is on her list, and where she also demonstrates enthusiasm for some of the academic and non-academic aspects of her life. Of course, good interviews and even “bad" ones (which are far rarer) can often reflect the quality of the interviewer and his or her ability to connect with a teenager. While professional admission staff members are usually able to do a decent job of this, the quality—or lack thereof---among alumni volunteers is quite varied.

Bottom line: While top grades in the best classes offered at the high school provide the best prescription for college success, students aiming for the most selective colleges might also want to consider:

-Seeking and taking more challenging classes outside of high school (if the high school's own offerings are limited)

-Pursuing extracurricular passions outside of high school, particular those that may set the student apart from the crowd.

Finally, as you begin to wander into the college quagmire, do keep in mind that the waters can be murky, but students like your daughter will have plenty of options.

(posted 11/26/2010)