The college admissions process is a topic that we cover extensively. Why? Well, there are A LOT of factors that go into college admission decisions. But we also want to make sure you understand how your efforts fit into the bigger picture of the college application process. Watch this webinar, presented by Jesse Pizarro, C2 Teacher Trainer extraordinaire, to get the full view of college admissions.
In this webinar, we cover the college admissions process. You’ll learn about how admissions officers view the various components of the college application, and what to do to impress them! From standardized test scores to interviews to the essay, college applications are a complicated enterprise. After watching this video, you’ll feel prepared to gain admission to your dream school!
Welcome, everyone, to tonight’s presentation. As Sam said, we are going to be covering college admissions, and, basically, just going through every aspects of a college application, talking about it from the perspective of the admissions officer. What do they look for? What do they care about? Therefore, what should you, as someone who’s going to go in and do some college applications pretty soon here, what should you be worried about? What should you be focusing on? What should you be paying attention to as you enter this process?
As Sam mentioned, I have a lot of experience, here, at C2 working, specifically, with college essay students, help students get into some of the very tippy top schools across the country. Like Sam said, one of the other things I do is I help run our college essay review service, which means that I get an eye on just about a gazillion college essays every single year. I’ve seen a lot of them, and it’s really essential part of my job to pay attention to college admissions, how they change, and, again, what students should be worried about.
At C2, we like to think of college admissions as being broken up into six big pieces. This isn’t to say that this is exhaustive, these are literally the only elements that add up to your application or to a college acceptance. These are some of the biggest ones, the most important ones, and what we’re going to focus on for today’s presentation. An easy way to think about these is … It’s a little cheesy, but it’s an easy way to remember them, which the three A’s.
We’ll start with the most important A, which is academics. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. The single biggest factors that determine admissions to college are academic ones. They’re about your grades and your test scores.
Following that, probably, in order of importance, are your activities. What did you do besides go to class and get all these grades? What’s all that stuff that you spent your time on after school, and on the weekends, and so on and so forth?
Then, finally, we get to a category that I think some students don’t think of as quite as important. This is the “attitude and aspirations.” What makes you, you? There’s a lot of students out there that have really good grades, that have excellent SAT scores, but that won’t mean they’re equally good fits at every college out there. Colleges are more than just schools. That’s an important thing to remember, when you’re thinking about crafting a college application.
Colleges love to think of themselves as something a lot more like communities, where there’s a whole bunch of members of this community and everyone has something to contribute. Sure, very many members of a college community have in common that they go to classes, and take tests, and get grades, and all that stuff, but they also do a whole bunch of other stuff to make a college campus, to make a college city, or whatever, into something more like a community. Attitudes and aspirations section is where college admissions officers often can get the best information about what kind of fit you might be on their campus, about what you would contribute, not just in the classroom, but to the broader college community.
Again, that’s not to say that academics don’t matter, or that they’re not the most important factor. Of course they are. They really do, but all these other factors matter as well. As college admissions get increasingly competitive, and they’re certainly not getting any less competitive any time soon, each factor just rises in importance.
Another thing to consider, and I touched on this a little bit already, but I really want to underscore the point that, especially when it comes to the very top schools, especially when it comes to the very best school in the country, all those factors besides academics start to matter even more. The reason is, because they can already fill their classes with people that have stellar, that have absolutely impeccable academic credentials.
I visited Stanford, and at one point the admissions officer said to me that should could’ve filled her entire freshman class with valedictorians that have perfect SAT scores. Now, she chose not to, which should tell you something right in of itself. It also speaks to the fact that, broadly speaking, when you’re applying to a college that you have a pretty good shot of getting into, you are going to be applying with similar academic credentials to lots and lots of the other students that have a pretty good chance of getting in, by definition, once again. It really, really, is important to think about all of those other factors.
Now, I know some of you are probably sitting there and worrying a little bit about, “Well, wait a minute. I don’t have a score quite that high,” and that’s okay too. This is specific to Harvard. it’s not to say that you can’t have slightly worse scores, nor is it to say that you’re just numbers, even when it comes to academics. Colleges are going to look beyond simply a number to determine what kind of student you were in high school, and therefore, what kind of student you’re likely to be when you get to college.
The way we’re going to run the presentation today, one of the things that you’ll see in a recurring fashion, is every once in a while a poll will pop up and ask you to vote. In today’s webinar, it’s going to be pretty easy, because the poll question is always going to be the same. We’re going to proceed through this webinar as the we are college admissions officers judging these two folks. Poor John. Poor Michelle. They’re both trying to get into college. They crafted an application, and we’re going to ask you to vote based on some different factors that we show you as we go through each of the pieces, or elements, of the college application.
Right off the bat, we’ve got two numbers right here. We’ve got John with a 4.53 GPA, and Michelle with a 3.75. I know it might seem a little bit obvious, but let’s go ahead and take that first poll question now. Who would you prefer, if you were the college admissions officer? Who would you accept?
Okay. Yes, I see that the vast majority of you are, not surprisingly, voting for John here, because, hey, 4.5 is greater than 3.75. That is totally reasonable. I think that sometimes folks worry that that is literally how colleges, or how admissions officers, make these decisions. They literally look at those two numbers, see that one’s bigger than the other, and move on.
I am here to assure you that that is not the case. They are interested in a much fuller and deeper picture of your academic performance, and thus, your academic potential, than simply looking at a number like a GPA, or simply looking at a number like an SAT score. Now, of course, those scores matter.
What admissions officers are really looking for is a body of work. They want to see the whole of your high school experience, the whole of your high school performance. They judge a number of different factors. A couple of them are listed there right on the screen, skill, rigor, and commitments. Basically, colleges want to see that you tried hard, you challenged yourself, you took classes that were about as difficult as possible for you, or about as difficult as possible given the school that you attended, and that you stuck with it, that you continued to improve, or develop, or challenge yourself, all the way through high school.
Any rising seniors here thinking about dropping your foreign language as a senior, just because, “I’ve done three years of it, and I don’t really like it. It doesn’t seem like that big a deal.”? That would be a classic case of a lack of commitment, someone who got through the state mandated requirements and just stopped, because now they’re done with this thing, as opposed to continuing to challenge themselves in a subject that may not be their absolute strength or their absolute favorite.
College admissions officers are going to, I promise you, they’re going to look at your GPA in context. They’re going to ask themselves, “What does that 4.53 mean?” “What does that 3.75 mean?” They’re going to look at stuff to help them figure out what it means. Where does a 3.75 rank in this school? Does that put you in the top 2% of students? Well, maybe that’s a really impressive GPA. Maybe it’s a really hard school. Maybe they don’t offer very many honors classes. So, almost no students have any scores that are scored out of 5 in their GPA, as opposed to out of 4. How did previous students, who came out the school, do? If they attended our college, specifically, or if not, what does the school’s strength over time look like?
Again, how many honors or AP courses did this student take as a percentage or as a proportion of the available such courses at the student’s school? Colleges try not to penalize you for maximizing the opportunities available to you. A student who takes the most APs possible at his school, even if that’s not that many APs total, can still be a really, really, impressive applicants, because again, they did everything they could given the resources available to them.
Here, we see an example of what they might call an info sheet, or basically just a way for colleges to organize information about students. We can see, right at the top, John has a weighted GPA, where Michelle’s is unweighted. Immediately, a lot of that difference between 4.5 and 3.75 goes away, or at least it shrinks.
Each of them is in about … Well, John’s about the top 5% of his class, where Michelle, we know, is in the top 10% of her much, much, bigger class. If we look down at the number of honors and AP courses they took, we see that they’re fairly comparable. In fact, each of them would be rated as having taken the most demanding coursework, essentially, available at their school. It’s not say that, oh my gosh, all the sudden, Michelle’s GPA looks way better, but it is to say that there’s not nearly so much of a gap or a difference between these two , as simply looking at that one number might suggest.
Okay. Time for poll number two. Not a trick question. Based on these two numbers, which candidate do you think is a bit stronger or would you prefer?
Okay. Wow, yes. Unsurprisingly, once again, we have the vast, vast, majority of you favoring the bigger number, in this case, Michelle’s 1530 to John’s 1520. Honestly, there’s really not very much difference between these two scores. Ten points is well within the margin of error, when it comes to the SAT. Most admissions officers, looking at these two scores, would think of them as basically equivalent, as opposed to one being a lot better, or one being worse, really.
That said, it’s important to keep in mind that the SAT or the ACT is not the most important exam, when it comes to college admissions. They matter, they are important, and they do provide a really nice benchmark. They provide almost like a control and a way to compare students as almost as scientifically as we can. In other words, we know these students took very, very, similar or equivalent tests, and each of the them got this number, and that tells us something. It doesn’t necessarily tell us that much about how students will do in specific classes in college, especially classes that they might be interested in, classes they might want to major in, because the SAT doesn’t test the same sort of coursework that you do in college. It tests the kind of thinking, to some extent. Certainly, some of the math, I suppose, might show up in a college level math class.
In general, if you’re interested in, how’s the student going to do in their freshman year courses, did this student master their subjects that they specialized in, in high school, colleges are much, much, more likely to look at things like SAT subject tests and AP exams. SAT subject tests are like high school level tests. They’re meant to show, did you achieve a high school level understanding or mastery of this subject?
Successful students generally take as many SAT subject tests as they can possibly get good scores on. There is no upper limit. There is no, once you’ve got X good scores, you’ve got enough. I wish I could say that there were. I, actually, personally, think this is a bit of a messed up aspect of college admissions. I think they should cap the number that students are allowed to submit to limit the arms race that is developing among high school students. However, they haven’t done that yet. At least, as of now, there is no downside to having an extra really strong SAT subject test score. Again, assuming you can get those good scores, assuming that you can achieve scores that you would be proud of, you should take as many as you possibly can.
Likewise, for AP exams, once again, the more the better, when it comes to APs. Now, APs are, in some ways, the most important, because they allow you to demonstrate “college” level understanding or mastery of a given subject. The whole point of AP courses is to be equivalent to or similar to a freshman intro course that you might take in college. If you’ve done that in high school and gotten a really good score, as demonstrated by your grade in the course and/or your grade on the AP exam, that is an excellent sign, and one that shows that, academically speaking, at least, you’re very likely capable of handling the work that you will be faced with in college.
If we start to look at John and Michelle and drill down on some of the SAT subjects tests and AP scores, we do start to see a little bit of difference here from two students who had equivalent SAT scores. You might think of them as equivalent students. GPAs seem pretty similar. Class ranking seem pretty similar. Once we get into those tougher tests, once we get to the SAT subject tests and the AP exams, we start to see a little bit of a gap in Michelle’s favor open up, particularly when it comes to math.
John’s math score falls from the regular SAT to the SAT subject test in math. Whereas, Michelle’s actually goes up. Now, I’d say it’s pretty rare that it actually increases, but the fact that it stays really, really, high, and that’s backed up even further by Michelle’s 5 on the most difficult math AP exam that is available. The AP Calc BC, she pops a 5 on that. We can look through and see this through line of strength in math from Michelle is there and really, really strong.
Now, John’s got good scores, 4 on AP US History, 4 on AP English Language, those are both excellent, excellent scores, but they’re not 5s. Fives are definitely better than 4s. Keep in mind that, if either of those was a 3, that would actually … Again, it’s a passing score. It’s not a bad score, but I think it’s important, as an applicant, to recognize that 3s or not in the same category of passing score as 4s and 5s are.
Many colleges, in fact, have stopped offering very much in the way of credit for 3s. They might let you skip the freshman class, but they’re not going to give you a bunch of units for it. Certainly, when I was in college, many of the intro level teachers would say explicitly to you, “Hey, if you got a 3 on the AP, you should probably stick in this class and not try and skip it. If you got a 4 or a 5, then talk to me after class, or maybe just go ahead and skip it right away.” There really is a reasonably large difference between those. That’s an important thing to keep in mind when you’re thinking about your scores, when you’re mapping out colleges that you can potentially get into based on your academic profile.
Okay, so we’ve talked about grades. We talked about a whole bunch of different types of test scores, and they all matter. For those of you who are seniors, you still have some time to improve those scores. There’s still a couple more administrations of the SAT over the summer and into the fall, where you could raise those things. It’s also true that, if you think about it, you’re mostly done, when it comes to academics. You’ve already achieved your grades for the first three years of high school. You’ve already done freshman, and sophomore, and junior years. In many ways junior year and first semester senior year, are the most important when it comes to your grades. A lot of that is in the bank.
Activities, honestly, to some extent, is as well, but you still have time to keep that involvement going and deepen it. When it comes to activities, I think a lot of students fear, much like with academics, that we’re going to have a quantitative evaluation process, that we just look at numbers. Let’s do that. Based on just this, this list here, which candidate do you think is more impressive, or which candidate do you prefer?
Okay. Yes, and once again, a lopsided vote, shockingly enough. We see the vast majority of you prefer the student with just more activities. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that more activities is worse, or that there is absolutely no quantitative component to this at all. There is. Colleges do care about how much stuff you did, about how much time you put in.
That is not all that care about. Excuse me, I’m going to try and get that message to disappear. They don’t simply care about the sheer numbers. They want something a little bit more than that. That’s where, at C2, we try to bring up this concept that we call the well-angled student.
Many of you have probably heard that it’s a good idea to be well-rounded. The problem with well-roundedness is that it often leads to insufficient depth. It leads to a lack of focus. It leads to a student that does a whole bunch of stuff and does a little bit of all of it, but doesn’t do a lot of anything, doesn’t really devote themselves or dive into any one, or two, or three things. Therefore, when it comes time to pick stuff to write essays about, when it comes time to answer interview questions, when it comes time to, essentially, talk meaningfully about your activities, about your experiences, about what they meant to you, or why you like them, or why you chose to get involved with them, or why you hope to continue that involvement when you get to college, those students are often at a loss. They don’t have much to say, because there’s just not the depth in terms of those activities there.
One thing we advise at CT and particularly if we’ve got any younger students here, freshman or sophomores, is to start a little bit broad. Sign up for lots of activities as a freshman, but over time, winnow and focus. It doesn’t mean just quit stuff willy nilly. It means that, as you deepen your involvement in somethings, as that starts to take up more of your time, and mental energy, and whatnot, you can eliminate some other commitments. You end up with a few things, not zero, not just one, but a couple of different things, but that you have that same rigor, skill, and commitment that we talked about in academics, that you dedicated time to, that you have real achievements, and stock that you can point to, when it comes time to, say, write an essay, or answer an interview question, or convince someone that this really was a meaningful activities in which you played a real role or a major part.
What does that look like in practice? Well, one of the easiest ways to demonstrate that depth, to demonstrate that involvement, is to achieve some sort of leadership position. Now, I know that can sound a little bit scary, because there’s only so many of those, and certainly not everyone can get one. Look, we’ve all been in a club where the president doesn’t really do a whole lot, and it was an empty title, or it was a little bit silly, and that’s fair. That said, it’s still a good way to show that, even if it’s imperfect, even if it isn’t always true, or something like that, it is something that colleges will often look to as a sign of someone’s deeper involvement or real engagement with something.
I think that’s especially true if it’s something that’s chosen in some combination of by your peers and/or advisors, where it’s not just the captain of the hockey team, it’s that all your teammates chose you to be the captain of the hockey team, because they know you show up to practice. They know you try hard. They know that, when they don’t feel like doing some kind of conditioning drill that you suck it up and get them all to do it, and serve as a motivator, or something along those lines. If that’s the case, that is what a captain does. That is what makes for real dedication, and, at the end of the year, you can take some satisfaction on having provided that sort of leadership. Obviously, if you can get those leadership positions, if you can earn them, that’s wonderful.
I would say, just as important as that is to pick things, is to deepen your involvement in things, that do real things. I don’t know if any of you have been in, what I like to call, meeting clubs. At my high school, at the time, I was in the Key Club. The Key Club was a classic meeting club. We would show up on Tuesdays to … I forget who’s classroom it was, but we’d have a meeting. At the end of the meeting, we’d talk about the agenda for the next meeting. Then, we’d all show up the next week and have another meeting. There wasn’t really a whole lot of other stuff, where we actually went out and served, and cleaned up beaches, or volunteered at elementary schools, or whatever it is that we were supposed to do in Key Club. It didn’t feel like that happened very often, certainly not compared to the number of meetings we held, where the secretary read the minutes, and the president called order, and all the various folks in leadership positions did their thing.
The various folks in leadership positions did their thing. So try to avoid meeting clubs or clubs where there’s not a whole lot of meat, right, where real stuff doesn’t actually take place that you can actually get involved in and potentially point to later. Another thing to look out for is, if you can find some kind of through line or theme to your activities, that can be really, really helpful.
It’s not to say that you need to do the exact same activity three different times. That you need to join service club a, service club b and service club c so that you can say, “Hey, I’m really into service.” But, if there is something, especially something academic that you’re particularly into, or that you intend to cite as the thing you want to major in or you want to apply to a special program in that area, having a couple of different activities that you can point to that indicate that interest or that validate that interest, can be a really nice thing to highlight in an application. That said, it’s nice to show a little bit of range as well. Sort of in a balanced way.
Again, if you just do the same thing in three different forms, you’re in the orchestra and you’re in the string orchestra and you play music for the musical or something like that, that’s again, all of those activities individually seem great. But it really is just a lot of music. And there’s not a whole lot of, if you were trying to say you had some other interest beyond that, it would be very hard to substantiate. Again, can you find some kind of schematic outlet or through line without going overboard? I’ll emphasize this as many times as possible, did you do real stuff? Was there valuable active participation put in on your part?
Now, I’ve talked about quantities a little bit already. Again, there is a minimum. They’re going to expect you to have hit some number of hours, some number of weeks, some number of years when it comes to these things that you claim to be dedicated to or passionate about. One of the things that makes me the saddest when I work with students on college essays is when I get a student who wants to write an essay about something, they tell me that, “oh my gosh, I love basketball so much and it helped me develop into the person that I am today. My coach was a really great role model.” And I start reading maybe an essay draft or we start brainstorming or something and then it becomes clear that they didn’t play basketball junior year.
I ask them why and they say, “Oh. My mom made me quit to focus on academics,” or something like that. It’s so sad because it totally blows a hole in the idea of that essay. You’re saying that basketball is this important thing to you and it mattered so much and it helped you develop. It helped turn you into the person that you are today, but also you quit it for a year because it wasn’t as important as something else. So, it can put that specific student in a tough position, but the point is that there needs to be both. There needs to be that quantity, that uninterrupted through line and then also the real quality of time, that the time was well spent, that the students were doing real things when it comes to the activities.
So here we see a lot more detail when it comes to those numbers. We see something closer to a resume in terms of the way that the various activities here are fleshed out. So we can see at the top there, certainly when it comes to leadership positions, John dominates Michelle. She’s got one Editor in Chief, he’s got a couple of different editorships as well as a captaincy. We also see that nice, both focus and balance that I was trying to talk about on John’s side. We see a couple of different magazine, newspaper, journalistic type enterprises there. But then we also see football as a fairly different thing. And yet, John is successful as a leader in all of those areas.
Now, it’s not to see that anything Michelle has done is bad or unimpressive. But we don’t see that same, we can’t really pick out that focus or that one thing that she seems to really, really care about. When it comes to volunteering, again we see they both have done the quantity side of it. They’re both spending their summers volunteering and stuff like that. But again, we see a little bit of scattered when it comes to Michelle’s stuff. Two weeks here, a Summer there. Whereas John has this really, really consistent commitment at the community center, at the state park. Now again, it’s not that anything he’s doing in either of those places is extraordinary. Keeping the visitor center running is a good thing to do. It’s lovely, it’s not amazing. But at the same time, the fact that he’s gone there every single Sunday for presumably years now, means that it’s very likely one, that he really is committed to this thing, that he really does care about it. And two, that he’s had the sort of sufficient volume of experiences, of things happen and situations that he’s had to deal with and crazy stories and whatever else, that should he choose to write an essay about that volunteer experience, he’ll have material.
He’ll be much more likely to have good grist and not have to pack everything into the craziest Habitat for Humanity trip of all time, if you wanted to spin that into an essay. When it comes to internships and jobs, I’d say pretty equivalent there. One thing I think sometimes students underestimate is the value of just having a job, even if it’s a job at Petco or a job at Baskin Robbins or something like that. There really is something about the responsibility of having a job, having a paycheck, having a real boss, having to punch a clock, learning the value of money that can be a really nice thing to highlight on a resume or that can be impressive to admission officers. So I wouldn’t necessarily think that John has some massive advantage when it comes to internships and jobs, but I do think that looking at this helps put into a lot, lot better and more accurate context, these two candidates where we thought Michelle was dominant just based on the sheer volume of stuff. With the more nuanced and deeper look that admissions officers are likely to take, all of a sudden John starts looking a lot better in comparison.
Third thing. Attitude and aspirations. There’s a whole bunch of sort of little things that go into this as well as the one big thing, the elephant in the room which is, of course, the college essay. But let’s talk about some of the other factors first that can influence college’s perceptions of your attitude and aspirations. First one to talk about is letters of recommendation. These are sort of a classic thing that colleges ask for. I have a bunch of advice for students when it comes to asking for letters of recommendation. I think that one thing that’s really, really important to recognize is that you know your teachers better than they know you most of the time. Or in most cases. Just think about the sheer numbers. Your teacher, maybe they have five classes of 30 students every day. That’s 150 different people. You have what, six teachers? Five? Seven? Something like that.
The directionality there, it makes it very clear that it’s going to be really, really hard for your teacher, unless you have a really great relationship with them beyond simply the classroom, to write a really, really interesting letter of recommendation on your behalf. In fact, my guess is that when teachers are asked to write letters of recommendation by students that they don’t know very well, well one thing that many, many teachers do, many many high schools do is require students to fill out what are called brag sheets. When it comes to a brag sheet, a brag sheet is essentially a resume, or it’s like a mini college application basically. It’s a bunch of questions where you list out your interests and your grades and some of your qualifications. Then maybe there are some questions of the style that you might see on a college application. Tell us about your dreams and goals. Tell us about why you want to go to college at these schools and what makes you think you’d be a good fit, those kinds of questions.
Some students take these really seriously and try really hard on them and they end up with really great letters of recommendation. Other students don’t take them very seriously, or don’t try very hard on them and they end up with quite poor letters of recommendation. That’s because, think about it from your teacher’s perspective. They don’t know you very well. They’re not sure exactly what to write in their letter beyond the academic stuff. They can obviously summarize your performance in their class. But in terms of what makes you you, what makes you stick, what makes you stick out from all the other A students they’ve had over the years, that’s where the brag sheet comes in handy, that’s where they’re going to be looking to for information about you. So if you’ve done a poor job on that, not only are you not giving them much in the way of information, you’re also kind of insulting them.
A letter of recommendation is a favor from your teacher to you. Essentially, you’ve asked them to go home and spend a couple of hours writing an essay for you, or about you. That’s not necessarily the most fun thing to do. So my strong, strong suspicion, I know this is what I would do if I were a teacher, is that when they get asked to write a letter for someone that they don’t know very well and then they get a bad brag sheet or one that doesn’t have a whole lot of information, they open up letter of rec dot doc that’s sitting on their desktop, or generic letter dot doc. They change the name from whatever student last year to this student this year and the letter says something like so and so is a great student. I recommend them. You should let them in. Thanks, teacher.
It’s fine. They didn’t say a bunch of nasty things, but there’s nothing in there that’s going to make you, the student, stand out. There’s nothing in there that’s going to get the admissions officer to know you better. Whereas if you give them material, if you let them know you through the brag sheet and also of course through class. You do got to raise your hand sometimes. You do have to participate and be involved to the degree that your teachers can actually, again, feel like they know you as people. So try on your brag sheets. If you’ve had any teachers for more than a year, if you’ve had a teacher for multiple years, especially in an academically challenging class, they can often provide amazing letters of recommendation because they really do know you right? Or at least they know you a lot better than most other teachers are likely to. And make sure that you’re following the rules. If the college application says two letters of rec and no more, then do not submit three.
Do not go and get a fourth one. Most applications say two letters of rec plus one supplemental. If you are going to turn in a supplemental recommendation, make sure that it is supplemental. In other words, it should not come from another academic teacher. It could come from someone like a coach or an advisor at a youth group or a volunteer organization. It could come from a conductor or someone that you do some kind of extracurricular activity with. But it should not just be a third letter that isn’t somehow meaningfully different from the other two. The other kind of letter of rec that you have worry about comes from your guidance counselor. This isn’t that big a deal because it’s not as much about you. It’s much more about your school. It’s how colleges get all that information about what percentage of students at this high school went on to a four year university. It’s how they evaluate the strength of your school and the difficulty of the academic program that you took as a student.
That said, it is worth, if you haven’t already, meeting your guidance counselor. Spending a few minutes, pop your head in, introduce yourself and just say something like hey. If you’ve got five minutes to chat, I’d love to sit down and talk to you about my college classes or take any advice that you have right at the beginning here. I think guidance counselors are often … students underestimate how much useful info they can provide locally. Guidance counselors are often a wonderful source of information for, let’s say, small scholarships that aren’t necessarily in all those big online databases, that are awarded locally or by some local organization. They’re often aware of small schools, schools that wouldn’t have necessarily come across your radar, that you wouldn’t have necessarily heard of, but that might be a perfect fit or that might have some great program that a kid three years ago enrolled in and that you might be really interested in.
Again, if you don’t introduce yourself to them, if you never pop your head in, if you never ask them for advice, you could miss out on some opportunity that might end up being quite good. Beyond that, of course it’s nice for them to have a positive impression of you in mind, as they write up the student evaluation, as they send out the secondary school report. So again, it doesn’t have to be some massive formal thing. It can be a five minute, ten minute pop your head in thing. If they say I don’t have time right now, go away. Then you should go away and come back later. But most of the time they will say great, so glad you did this, have a seat. They’ll talk to you for a few minutes and send you on your way and it will be a sort of useful and quick meeting.
One piece of advice there. Okay. We mentioned some of the differences between good and less good recommendations so I am going to show some examples. Of course, these are very short. Real recommendation letters are much, much longer than this. But hopefully it’s enough to kind of give you the idea and we’ll take another vote here. Go ahead and read through those three. Now we have a few for Michelle. We’ll take a minute to read those and then pop up the poll in another 15 seconds or so. Yeah, there we go. Based on those, whose do you like better? Hopefully this one won’t be quite as massive or overwhelming a vote in favor of one candidate or the other, but we shall see. Nope. Pretty, pretty overwhelming. Okay. The vast majority of you have voted already. Everyone likes Michelle, which is good because Michelle’s are much, much better recommendations, even in these little short forms.
What actually makes Michelle’s stand out? What makes them better? Well let’s start with what makes John’s bad. Again, you can kind of hear me laughing here. It’s not to say that they’re bad in the sense that none of these says anything negative about John. But, and let’s start with the third one here. The third one is your classic totally generic recommendation where you could literally cross out John’s name, put in anyone else’s name and it would say the exact same, there would be no real difference. You could say this about literally any student, or really person, that you are recommending for virtually anything. You respect them, you admire them and you recommend them. That’s great, but there’s nothing there to substantiate any of it. There’s nothing there to suggest that the person who is offering this recommendation really means it or really knows John that well.
The second one, we get at least a little bit of detail. We get that he’s both an athlete and a student and he balances the two. Probably true of pretty much any athlete that’s applying to this school or that had an impressive high school career. You pretty much have to balance the two, but at least there is something there. Now recommendation one I think is clearly the best. It uses some different adjectives there, but it also has a descriptiveness. It does highlight a characteristic of John that you wouldn’t necessarily notice if you didn’t know John very well, this underlying sensitivity that stands out among adolescents or among teenagers. And that’s a nice little detail that’s included there that gives that recommendation a little bit more credibility. But again, overall, these are pretty blah recommendations.
They’re not that great. Now what about Michelle? So we’ve got recommendation one here and look. Is Michelle really the very best student this teacher has had in 20 years? Probably not. That’s fairly unlikely. That having been said, the fact of the matter is that Michelle was able to get this teacher to be hyperbolic. This teacher was excited to write this letter for Michelle and was willing to say a statement like this that is probably a little bit silly, but nonetheless it does really suggest that this person believes this, that this person really thinks Michelle is great, even if she’s not a one in twenty years kind of student. Recommendation three, fairly weak. I think we can agree on that. However, we do see that at least this teacher knows what Michelle wants to do. We see that this teacher knows Michelle’s aspirations to be a doctor or to go into medicine and that’s not nothing.
That’s not something that necessarily the teacher would just know from the fact that Michelle’s in a bio class or something like that. It’s something where Michelle would have had to say it or she would have had to observe it somehow. Then we see recommendation two and here I think we have a really nice recommendation. Again, it’s not saying anything extraordinary. It’s saying hey, she works hard, she’s a good student, but she also does these other activities and contributes to them. But again, it’s the fact that the teacher knows this stuff. Michelle has really made an impression on this teacher to know all the stuff that she’s doing all the time around campus and around class that sounds like Michelle is a pretty big presence on campus because she’s involved with so much stuff. And again, the teachers are aware of that or noticing that. Again, we see the level of detail that the teachers are able to include increases the credibility and thus the strength of these recommendations pretty substantial.
Okay. Next thing to talk about, and we’ll do this quickly here, is interviews. Interviews are wonderful. Most colleges offer them at this point. My strong recommendation here would be that you do them if at all possible because most interviewers are not looking for reasons to dislike you. They are looking for reasons to like you and write something positive about you. So as long as you meet them halfway and do a decent job in the interview, it’s very likely that they’ll write something nice and that it will help your candidacy. One recommendation when it comes to interviews is basically prepare, but don’t rehearse. There’s a big, big difference between going into an interview having thought of some of the questions that you might get asked during the interview and thought about how you might answer them. That’s awesome. That’s wonderful preparation.
But that’s very, very different from typing up answers to each of those questions and then memorizing those answers word for word and then in your interview, sitting and waiting for an opportunity to just launch into one of those speeches, basically. If I’m your interviewer, look if I wanted you to type of a bunch of answers to a bunch of questions, I would have emailed you a bunch of questions and we don’t have to sit here at Starbucks and drink coffee or whatever. It’s not the goal. The goal of the interview is to have a conversation with a person. And if you’re just sitting there reciting lines and looking for opportunities to insert your monologues, you’re not having a conversation with a person. In fact, it’s kind of insulting to your interviewer, at least a little bit.
They may respond by trying to throw you off or interrupt you or see if they can kind of break you’re rehearsed answers. But even if they don’t do that, even if they’re not that mean, they’re not likely to be all that inspired by the interview. It’s worth taking the time to do this. It’s definitely worth taking the time to prepare. But, strong, strong recommendation against memorizing lines, or memorizing your answers. Okay, then the big one. The college admissions essay. We’re going to just touch on the essay here. It is one part of a larger process in application. That having been said, we understand the importance of the college admissions essay. In the months to come, we will have an entire webinar dedicated specifically to the essay. We’ll go into much greater depth there, but we will touch on it here. It is part of, of course, the college interview and it is, in some ways, the admission officer’s best insight into you the person at the time that you’re applying to college.
Because you write the whole essay when you’re a senior. You do the whole thing at the end of … it’s not like your freshman year grades, they count for your GPA. As do your first semester sophomore year grades. But the essay, as of application time, is entirely under your control. You need to somehow distinguish yourself via that essay. That means that it’s just got to be time, energy and effort. It is, you’ve got to know that everyone else that’s applying to college is in competition with you. And many, many of them are going to be willing to put in a lot of time and energy and effort into making their essays perfect. So make sure that you are putting in the time and energy and effort to compete with that, because the essay is also a way to jump a little bit in terms of the type of school that you could potentially get into. If a student has a certain set of academic credentials that put them in sort of this range of schools. But a student has just an amazing kind of blow you away type essay, that is one of the few things that can really enable you to have a real shot at getting into a dream school or a REED school in a way that some other elements of the application it’s really hard to do.
So, don’t skimp on this. We advise people to start as early as possible when it comes to the essay and we really mean that. A lot of times, you’ve got to go through a lot of ideas before you get to a good one, or workable one or …
Before you get to a good one, or workable one or one that’s really gonna sort of sound like you, and feel like you, and give people who read it a good strong impression of who you are. So, we used to have a bunch of these full essays here to make you read. That seems a little crazy to me. So I kind of condensed this essay. You can see the big ellipsis there, where a whole bunch of it was cut out, But hopefully, in reading it, you still get a sense for kind of what the essay was about, what the main point is, what the big idea behind this essay is, that fake John produced. So take a moment to read that. Then I will pop up Michelle, and we’ll take one final vote on who we like better.
Okay. So we’ve got John, he’s got a pet, a cow, right? And he does. And this is a turning point in his life, according to that final paragraph. That right? This is something that taught him a perseverance and confidence, the willingness to try and try again. All right. And here I had to include more of Michelle’s to really kind of get the gist of what her essay was about, but I did manage to keep it on a single page, which is good. So go ahead and read through that and we’ll give it another 45 seconds or so to get through it. And then we’ll pop up that poll for you all to vote.
All right, so we’ve got Michelle here and she’s written about her hair at least in theory, but it’s more about self-acceptance, right? And, and sort of getting over this worry, or this fear of what other folks think of her, and learning to love herself and be happy with who she is.
Thank you all by the way, for, for voting so quickly. And it’s rare that I see so many of you voting so rapidly, so that’s awesome to see. Yes, and it looks like we have a pretty reasonably strong preference for Michelle here among our voters. I would totally agree, right? I think Michelle’s essay is a lot better. Not just like a little bit better, somewhat better, but like way better. So what makes it better? And there’s a lot of things. There are a number of things. Probably the single biggest thing that dooms John’s essay is, the mismatch between the event and the lesson, right?
The underlying event here is that John walked up to a cow and touched it on its leg. And I’m sure that John was really afraid of cows, or that it was reasonable that he was afraid of them or whatever, but I’m sorry, that’s ridiculous. He starts off the final paragraph, a minor achievement some might say. To that I say yes. In fact, all would say. This is not even an achievement. And then to identify it as a turning, to talk about all of these lessons he learned from walking up and tapping a cow on the leg, it just comes off as a little bit ridiculous. It’s really hard to credit this as all that likely to be true or real.
Contrast that with Michelle’s, and that’s leaving aside things like Michelle’s just a better writer. Her sentences flow better. She uses vocabulary like Herculean, and she doesn’t just use it because it’s in the thesaurus. She uses it precisely, and correctly. There is a difference between a word that works okay, and a word that fits, and is the best word for that specific spot, in that specific sentence. And Michelle’s use of impressive vocabulary, is distinguished further by the fact that it’s used so precisely.
She’s got some funny little images here. So you’ve got the penny and electrical outlet, and part of the essay that I cut out she throws her hairdryer out the window, because she’s just so tired of it. But then we see that she goes from the hair thing, and it’s not just the hair. She broadens to this bigger lesson of, kind of throwing off some of the customs of high school, and becoming free of what others think of her. Now, granted, there’s still some exaggeration here. There’s still some hyperbole, and especially after the sort of end of the essay, or at least where I cut it. It goes into this super important lesson type of rhetoric.
But again, we do have some key and specific details, that really back up the idea that she became more comfortable in her own skin, and made some choices as a result of that, took actions as a result of that. It’s also nice to notice that this essay takes place over a much more realistic period of time, for someone to make a major change in their personality, or kind of way of viewing the world. John’s essay takes place in about five minutes, and nonetheless, it is a turning point in his life. According to John.
Michelle’s essay takes place over the course of a year. It starts small and kind of builds, and builds, and builds through this sequence of events, almost like a montage. Into this heady experience/discovery. This moment of understanding. And so again, it feels much more organic, feels much more earned. It feels much realer, honestly it just feels true. So yes, I think a number of you have correctly identified that this is a much, much better essay, for a whole bunch of different reasons.
So adding that all up. I lied to you before, I apologize, but we’re gonna take one more vote. We talked about the academics. And we compared John to Michelle. I think each of you could come to different judgements on this, about how much you value those AP scores versus how much you value that weighted GPA, or the top five class rank. They both took really rigorous schedules. They both did impressively well in a number of classes. They both had pretty good SAT scores, and Michelle probably had the edge when it came to those higher level tests, when it came to the SAT subject tests. An [inaudible 00:50:05] example, John’s performance was still impressive.
Michelle had more activities, but John had a little bit more depth when it came to his. And probably more themes or thematic resonance, that he could point to or pick out. Then of course we just looked at some of the attitudes and aspirations stuff, where it seemed like Michelle had the edge. So based on that, let’s run that poll one last time. Who do you prefer? If you were up to you, who would you let into college?
Okay. I don’t even need to see all that many of you vote. It seems like the dominant and massive preference is for Michelle. So we saw how, through the course of this presentation, from the very beginning, the first vote was massively in favor of John. We saw that huge GPA number, we saw Michelle’s was three point seven five, and that’s not necessarily all that impressive. And yet through the process of going through the entirety of the application, seeing all the factors that admissions officers really do consider, and think about and look for, we had an overwhelming favorite, initially John, turned into an overwhelming favorite of Michelle, by the end of the presentation here.
So hopefully that really does underscore for you the fact that there is more to this process. There’s a lot of depth, it’s worth investing in, in terms of your time, your energy and your effort. There’s a lot that you can do to make yourself attractive to these schools. So, I would encourage you, especially you seniors, to get cracking pretty much as soon as you can. Now of course, C2 can help with this. I mentioned our College Essay Review Service.
We have tons and tons of teachers, who are absolutely exceptional at working with students through this process. At taking them from, “I don’t know what to write about.” To, “This is an awesome essay. I’m so happy that I’m turning it in.” to the stream school, or to the school, but I think it’s impressive. I think the reason that our teachers work so well with our students is because, we hire really high quality teachers. It is something that is a real point of pride for me as a teacher trainer. I very much enjoy working with the teachers that we hire each week.
It’s because that the qualifications are quite rigorous. We don’t just sort of hire people off the street, or based on their past achievements. When you come into C2 and try to get hired, the first thing you get is an SAT, we just hand you a test. I remember I kind of laughed when they gave it to me, because I thought I had a pretty good SAT score. I went to a pretty fancy school. I didn’t think I was gonna have a lot of trouble getting hired, and instead I just got handed an SAT. “Take this. And if you do well, if you prove that you can still kind of do it … We don’t care what SAT score you got in high school, we care about now, then we’ll interview you.”
Right? “Then we’ll train you. Then we will certify you to teach various subjects, and monitor you, and train you and make sure that you’re doing as well as possible with each and every one of our students.” I would strongly encourage you to both, download the coupon. I remember Sam mentioned it, right at the start of the presentation. But in the handout section of that control panel, you should see a coupon. It’s a coupon that we value at over $120. It allows you to come into any C2 that you’d like, and take one of our practice exams.
But more importantly, sit down with one of our center directors and consult on the results of that exam. They will take you through the full score report, and not just say, “Oh, you got a 20% on triangles, or you got an 80% on subject verb agreement.” But, “Here’s what that means. Here’s what that means about, if you were to come in to C2, how we would help you raise that, or how we would help you improve that. Here’s what that means about the next couple of years of high school, and what kind of sort of college path you should be on.” And being able to sit down and pick someone’s brain like that, who has done this with hundreds, if not thousands of students, is really valuable, if not invaluable. So I would encourage you to download that coupon.
Beyond that if you would like us to get in touch with you, if you want the C2 that is closest to you to get in touch, go ahead and just submit a question. Submit a question with your name, your zip code, and really that’s it. If you want to include a photo or excuse me, a name, zip code and phone number, and just put it in the question box. You don’t need to receive an answer or anything like that, but if you put it in there, we will make sure that whatever center is closest to you, gets in touch as soon as possible.
With that, I want to thank everyone for coming, and we’ll spend a minute or two, taking some of the questions that you all have put into the question pod throughout the presentation. At least for a couple minutes here while we still have time before the Webinar ends.
So, let’s see here. So, there’s a question about, is it better to take an honors class and get a B, or to level down and get an A? How important are honors versus regular classes?
It’s a great question, and there’s no real good answer to it. I mean, the correct answer to it is, to take the honors class and get an A. That’s what colleges are really gonna be looking for. That’s what they’re gonna want to see. If it’s between the two, if you, I would say that in general it’s probably better to still take the honors Class, and get the B. If it’s gonna be a C in the honors class, then it starts to be more of a question.
But another thing to consider is just, to what extent this class, is in your broader plans? In other words, if you intend to go be an engineer in college, you need to take the honors Math classes, and the honors Physics classes, And honestly, you pretty much need to do well in them also. Whereas if it’s a more peripheral subject, or subject that you’re not necessarily planning to pursue in greater depth, that I think, you could at least make a stronger case for just taking the regular class and not worrying about it quite as much.
Okay. What about AP online classes? How much weight to do online classes have?
It’s a great question. I think, we don’t necessarily have great data on that just yet, because they’re fairly new. That having been said, my suspicion would be that if it’s an online course, or a course that you don’t take at school, they’re gonna put a lot, lot more weight on the AP exam score and much, much less weight on whatever grade you get in the class.
They’re gonna want to see, could you back that up on the actual tests that we do know about. Because, again, depending on where you take this online class, it’s very possible the college will know essentially nothing about the rigor of that class, or how it’s graded or how it works, or really anything like that. But they do know about the AP test, and they know what your score on that is. And so, that’s gonna have a pretty outsize weighting in that circumstance, I think.
What about courses taking a community college, how are those viewed?
Yeah, I would say those are viewed as essentially equivalent to something pretty close to an AP class. Maybe just as an AP class. It probably varies a little bit from college to college. It may vary based on what exact class you’re taking at that community college. But yes, they are considered as essentially, or close to college level.
What if your school doesn’t have any AP classes?
So that’s a great question. I don’t know how common that is, honestly. I would assume that most schools have at least a couple. But if not, that’s okay. Take the hardest classes that you possibly can at your school, and then look for any opportunities that you can to challenge yourself academically, especially over the summer. Again, if there is a local community college, or just college, where you’re able to take a class over the summer, or two, that might be a great chance or opportunity to challenge yourself.
I know that in some districts, if you are an excellent student at a school that doesn’t offer a certain class, but another school in your district does, you can sometimes arrange to take that class first period. And then take the bus back over to your normal school for the rest of the school day, or something like that. So you may want to investigate that, but basically you just want to look for every opportunity you can outside of your school, to challenge yourself, and to demonstrate just how impressive of a student you can be. Because you don’t have quite as resources to be able to demonstrate that at your school.
So what about if it’s in the other direction? What if your school offers a gazillion AP classes, 20 to 30, what does a challenging load look like there?
It’s a great question. I think that in general, if you go to a school like that and you’re a student who is doing really well, you’re getting very solid grades, and you’re taking all the hard classes as a freshman, let’s say, before you’re really eligible to take very many APs. I would say that they’re gonna want to see at least a couple of APs, or maybe at least one as a sophomore. And then kind of as many as you can pack in as a junior and a senior.
Again, it depends on how many classes you take, period. Some schools, students tend to take five or six, at some schools students at seven. I think seven would probably be a bit much, personally. I think it’d be very hard to manage seven APs, shoot as an adult, let alone as a high school junior. But, four or five is certainly not out of the question. It would be really challenging, but it would also be really impressive, especially if the exam results kind of showed that you really did have that impressive of performance.
Okay. Can a supplementary letter of recommendation be from an internship job manager or boss, or from the Director of a nonprofit organization?
Yes, absolutely. In fact, I would suggest that those are some of the best types of things. That is exactly what a supplementary recommendation is. It is one from one of those types of people, as opposed to just another teacher.
Alright. I think we have time for maybe one or two more here and then we’ll wrap it up. Okay. So you’ve talked a lot about top students. What about the C plus or D minus student who’s got an act score of 28?
So yeah, I think one of the things I try to do, and, and apologies if this didn’t come through as clearly as it might have, is try to give advice for students, no matter kind of what band of applicant you are in. Right? If you’re a C plus B minus student, you have an act of 28. Okay, well, one, you still have time to potentially raise that ACT score, right? It’s not set in stone, you’ve still got this coming summer and into the fall to potentially retake that exam a couple more times.
Now, exams scores don’t just go up, because you take it again, right? You have to work, you have to put in some time and energy and effort, but there’s a lot of resources both at a place like C2, and just online or in your local library, that can help you put together a plan to study for that exam and raise that score. Even students that don’t have the greatest grades in the whole world, they still should, generally speaking, take SAT subject tests.
Hopefully you’ve taken a couple of those already, if you’re gonna be a senior this coming year. If not, you may want to look into that. Although, again, that may depend on the sort of colleges that you’re considering or, or attempting to apply to and what their admissions requirements are. Beyond that, this is the kind of student that’s gonna want to put a little bit more emphasis on things like activities, the essay.
It’s gonna be essential for the student to get really strong letters of recommendation, especially from the teachers in whose class the student has done well. Hopefully there are at least some classes where the student has really outperformed, maybe there’s a class that the students particularly interested in or that’s in the students a professional field, when they go to college. But yeah, I don’t think any of the advice here doesn’t apply to a student that doesn’t have quite as good of grades, Because again, you still want to stand out in every other area of the application as much as possible.
Okay. So with that, I think we’re gonna wrap up. We’re a little bit over time here, so thank you all so very much for coming. Hopefully you found the presentation useful and interesting. I wish you all the very best of luck with those college applications. And of course, I would encourage you one more time, if you would like C2 to reach out to you, submit one of those questions with your name, Zip Code and phone number. And go ahead and download that coupon in the handout’s area of the GoToWebinar control panel. Thank you all so much folks. Have a wonderful evening. And Good Day.
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