Can you tell us a little bit about your background?
Currently, I am the Director of College Counseling at San Francisco University High School. Before, I did admissions work for 20+ years and was a Senior Admissions Officer at Stanford University. While at Stanford, I developed an admissions policy statement regarding homeschool students that has since been adopted and adapted by other schools around the nation. I also taught a Humanities course in the Great Books at Stanford.
What are your thoughts on early admission/decision?
Early admissions can actually mean applying to college at a young age OR a college’s program that allows students to submit applications early. Sometimes it is beneficial to apply early, but it all really depends on the college and the quality of the applicant. One little tidbit to remember, if a student is applying to an early admissions program, early decision is binding, while early action is not binding.
What if the student is not quite ready to enter college early? Are there other options?
The postgraduate, or interim year, between high school and college is an option. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of financial assistance for this and typically it is for athletes. It can include small classes, rich curriculum, and independent study. Colleges look highly at elite schools, like Andover, who offer postgraduate years. But, not as much as if the student attended that school all four years. Some questions to consider if you are interested in looking into a postgraduate or interim year are:
From your experience, what do you think colleges look for?
College admissions officers are kind of like talent scouts for their faculty. They ask this question: “Will my faculty want to teach this student?” The college faculty directly or indirectly impact admissions because they want bright students to teach. From year to year, it really boils down to the level of competition for the college for that particular year; they are also looking for a well-rounded student body, not necessarily a well-rounded student. The criteria for admission do not vary much from year to year, only the level of selectivity.
Sometimes I have parents who want their child to only attend the best high school because they believe if their child goes to a well-known high school, they will get into well-known colleges. However, colleges do not, in fact, admit the students’ high school- they only admit the students themselves. The number one most important indicator is the high school transcript. The high school transcript shows class names, grades, and serves as a timeline of a student’s development. Most college admissions offices consider weighted grades and GPAs assigned by the school only in the context of the school. You cannot compare a GPA at one school with one at another. Anything other than the high school transcript is considered “number two” depending on the strengths of the individual applicant and the policies of the school. For example, some schools no longer require SAT scores, so these may have less value at such schools. These “number two’s” include essays, extracurricular activities, test scores, letters of recommendation, or anomalies such as being the first generation to enroll in college or a bright student applying to college at the age of sixteen. On a side note, one thing to consider when writing an essay is to not write about your summer camp experience, your missionary trip to Mexico or any clichés unless these experiences literally changed your life. College admissions have seen these topics a thousand times, and your essay will not stand out from others. Remember, a good essay illustrates maturity and reflectiveness.
Rumor has it that “Ivy League” schools are the best match for highly gifted students because of the atmosphere. What is your opinion on this?
You know, the term “Ivy League” actually refers just to an athletic conference. It has nothing to do with curriculum, faculty, or rigor! “Ivy League” schools have a reputation due to marketing and advertising which leads one to wonder, “If this guy is so good, why does he need to advertise?” It also leads to “tremendous certainty about the value of the college with tremendous ignorance about the college itself.” Too often, parents believe there are only a few colleges good enough for their child. I always like to tell parents of a story of two colleges. I was visiting colleges with my daughter one summer. We went to one school that had a close-knit, friendly vibe where the President knew all of the students’ names. I was impressed when he asked the baseball player how his knee was doing after sliding into home plate during the team’s last game. Then, we went to another college that had a completely different feeling. My daughter got to spend the night in the dorms and saw many of the students preferred to party on weeknights instead of studying. So which school would you like to pay tuition for your child to attend? Well, the close-knit school happens to be Whitman College and the so-called “party school” is Harvard.
How might you suggest selecting a college or university?
First of all, don’t get your heart set on a certain college. It’s important to have several colleges in mind. In fact, by Thanksgiving of senior year, I suggest my students complete a chart. On this chart, I recommend they make a list of 2-4 schools they want to apply to that are difficult to get in to. Next, write down 4-6 schools that are within reason to get in to. After that, make a list of at least 2 or more colleges you are likely to get in to. This means students should apply between 8-12 colleges.
When should students apply?
Make sure you check the specific college’s application deadline. Typically, for big-name colleges (Harvard, MIT, ect.), the deadline for applying early is typically around November 1st. For other colleges, the deadline to apply early is usually around November 15th. Regular application deadlines vary, but the majority are January 1st. Other schools have rolling admissions, and the University of California requires that you apply during the month of November. Just be informed.
What kinds of questions should I ask colleges?
It’s important to ask how advisors are assigned and if the admissions office points out the students whom they think will need close advising. Also, since precocious students are entering college at a younger age, ask admissions if they have a mechanism for looking after more needy, younger, or homeschooling students. Also, see link below for “A Pocket Guide to Choosing a College: Are You Asking the Right Questions?” which is a useful tool.
As you are aware, many highly gifted students have been homeschooled. Do you have any advice for homeschooling students or parents?
First of all, the more selective the college, the more reasonable they might be in regard to homeschoolers because they honestly want to look at the whole child. However, this also means the college is harder to get into. Generally, state universities are the most bureaucratic and want students to have standard high school diplomas and to have fulfilled specific course requirements. This is not always easy for a homeschooled student. Since 1998, homeschoolers do not need to produce a diploma or take a GED to qualify for federal financial assistance (see this web page https://hslda.org/content/docs/nche/000001/00000147.asp for details). In addition, colleges want to know homeschool students are ready to attend college. To show the admissions office a homeschool student is prepared, you may want to include a list of books the student has read each year in the portfolio. You’ll also want to add letters of recommendation from teachers, tutors, mentors or someone outside of the family.
College is expensive!! What financial assistance is available?
Check out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, more commonly known as FAFSA. It looks at both parents’ income but not home equity and it’s completely free. Almost all colleges, public and private, require it. The College Scholarship Service or CSS PROFILE is also another option required by the more selective private colleges that you can look into. It is similar to FAFSA but is for private colleges and fees apply. You can also look into the PLUS Loan, which is available to all families.
What can you tell us about testing? What test does a student need to apply to college?
First let’s talk about SAT tests. The SAT I test is now called the “Reasoning Test.” This test examines math, reading, and writing. The math portion actually assesses reasoning and is very much about logic and reading. The math is not higher than algebra, but requires figuring out how to solve problems. There is a penalty for guessing and the College Board does not encourage it. There is however, no penalty for leaving a question blank. Now that the SAT includes writing, the score is out of 2400. The test takes 3 and ¾ hours.
The SAT II tests are topic-based and each take an hour long to complete. They are scored from 200-800 and there are over 20 different topics/tests to take. No college requires more than 3, however, and most require either two or none.
The ACT test is an alternative to the SAT, and accepted almost everywhere. It tends to be more popular in the Midwest, but anyone can take it. There are four sections, including math, reading, science, and English. There is also an optional writing section, which receives a separate score. The math portion involves knowing some trigonometry. The ACT is a three-hour test and is scored on a 1-36 scale. There are no penalties for guessing, so don’t leave a question blank!
It really doesn’t matter which test the student decides to take. Some colleges will translate scores from one test to another. Also, I would suggest not taking the SAT to get an extra 20 points. These few points do not make a big difference. One last thing, take all big statements about testing with a grain of salt!
Resources and Recommended Readings:
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