Early planning is even more important for students who are living abroad and want to go back to their home country to continue their studies.
I remember taking my daughter on the college tour in the spring of her 11th grade year. My son, then in the 8th grade, went along for the ride. Or, so I thought. Day after day, we sat through information sessions at various universities, learning about what they require for their incoming freshman. I was focused on my daughter, since she would be applying to college the following year. It was an exhausting week of two or three visits a day, until all of the campuses started to blur into one large tour. On the flight returning home, we discussed what we had seen and heard over the past week. My daughter was excited about several of the schools, and was hoping to have many choices when she made her final selection.
The most clarifying moment came when my son spoke of his experience on the college tour. He began to articulate what I had believed for a long time. By the end of the 11th grade, the record is pretty well set, and there is very little time for improvement. By this stage, the academic transcript is almost completely established, standardized tests should have been taken initially, school activities are on the record, community service hours should have been logged, and relationships should have been built for the letters of recommendation. Many school counselors don’t begin to educate students about the necessary requirements for college until the 11th grade. By then, it is very late. In reality, the college tour was of more value to my son. He knew exactly what he needed to do to accomplish his college goals. He had received a roadmap at the end of the 8th grade.
It was validating to hear my son’s reaction. It is always a challenge to work with students who have not received the necessary information early enough to develop a plan. By the end of the 11th grade, the dye is pretty well cast. Applying to college is no longer just filling out a short application and sending the transcript along. It is much more complex, and requires a long term strategy. Most people have no hesitation about advanced planning for retirement. It would be unthinkable to begin planning when you turn 65. However, many parents wait until their children are in the 11th or 12th grade to begin the college planning process. Unfortunately, it is difficult to maximize the results so late in the process.
With the increase in competition, students need every advantage when applying to college. Understanding the expectations allows students to lay out a plan and follow it through their high school years. I know that it is difficult for many students to begin thinking about college by the beginning of the 9th grade. However, it is often that knowledge that separates them from other candidates when they apply. A student who learns what needs to be done to prepare for college in the 11th or 12th grade cannot rewrite the past.
Developing a college plan begins as a discussion about what interests the student has, and where their talents lie. This allows students to create a “theme” that they will follow through high school. The interest or passion should be reflected throughout the application. Such focus clearly defines the candidate. A student with future aspirations in the field of government and politics might select this area to be their “theme.” Therefore, this student should take history or government classes each semester, and this should also be an area in which they excel. Such a student would be wise to take AP, IB or honors classes in this field. The extracurricular activities for this student should demonstrate this interest as well. This means getting involved in student government, model United Nations, and other types of leadership projects. The community service aspect would be best served by volunteering at a government office, working on a political campaign, or becoming active on a social issue that the student is passionate about. The college essay should also have the “theme” running through it. This would tie the student’s interest by showcasing their passion for the subject. Finally, the letters of recommendation should testify to their commitment in this area. The letter writers should validate the interest, enthusiasm, and excellence that the student exhibits for the subject. By laying out this strategy early, the student can ensure that the theme is reflected throughout the application.
There are several components to the college application. They include; the academic record, standardized test scores, extracurricular activities, community service, the college essays, and letters of recommendation. Early understanding of each one enables students to achieve optimal results. Since colleges seek students with ongoing commitment, an application that shows continuity and strength is much more attractive. The student who rushes to log a few community service hours at the beginning of the senior year is not very convincing. Such tactics only reveal a student who was trying to get the hours in before the application period. College admissions officers are very aware of such strategies, and they are not impressed.
Each piece of the college application should be incorporated into an overall plan beginning in grade 9. The academic record is extremely important. Not only are schools looking for students with strong grades, but also those who challenge themselves academically. The more rigorous the program, the more impressive the student presents. It is commonplace for students to take a number of AP, IB, or honors classes. Colleges understand that classes that yield “easy A’s” are just that…easy! They appreciate students who go beyond the required courses, and enhance their knowledge in a variety of areas. This of course assumes that the student is academically capable of such levels of difficulty. The composition of the schedule is also important. Students should have several academic courses, not just a few mixed in with electives. U.S. colleges are not looking for students who meet their minimum standards. The competition is too intense, and they are drawing from highly qualified applicant pools.
Standardized test scores are also an important part of the application. Fortunately, these tests can be retaken in order to improve the score, although more than three attempts are not advisable. There are a number of companies that provide SAT/ACT preparation classes. If you are living overseas, and they are unavailable, there are several online courses. There are also SAT/ACT prep books that contain numerous sample tests. Many companies also offer test preparation software. Most international schools administer the PSAT in October of the 10th grade. This is a great opportunity to get a feel for the layout of the test, and the types of questions that are asked. It allows students to learn to manage their time, and focus on the areas that need the most improvement. If possible, students should take the PSAT again at the beginning of grade 11. The first attempt at the SAT and ACT should be made during the second semester of the 11th grade. Students can take both tests. Some schools require the SAT, some the ACT, and several will accept either examination. The advantage of taking both tests is that it keeps your options open, so that you can have the requirements for any college. In addition, if schools accept either exam, you can submit the one with the best score. AP exams should be taken at the end of the semester when the course is completed. This is for the purpose of receiving credits towards college. However, you can take an AP class, and opt not to take the AP exam. Conversely, you can take the AP exam without taking the AP course, but only if you have abundant knowledge in the given subject area. If you are applying to top tier schools that require the SAT 11’s (subject tests), you should plan to take them as soon as you finish the area of study and the information is fresh. Some schools require two different subject tests, others require more. You may choose the subject areas for most colleges, while a few select schools identify the required test areas. Once you have taken the required standardized tests, you can use the summer prior to your senior year to improve your skills and retake the exams during the 1st semester of your senior year. The SAT/ACT and SAT 11’s (subject tests) are administered in most countries several times a year. If the exams are not given in your location, they can be scheduled by special arrangement.
Colleges like to see that students are involved in extracurricular activities. They particularly appreciate a display of leadership. However, many students interpret this to mean that they should sign up for every club, activity, or team at school. U.S. colleges prefer evidence of commitment and involvement in your specific “theme” arena over a host of meaningless activities. For example, if you are interested in government and politics, you should participate in activities that demonstrate your claim. You can run for student body office, serve on the student council, or participate in the model United Nations. Joining the chess club and playing on the soccer team are fine activities, but they do little to express your enthusiasm for government and politics. Colleges want to see clearly defined interests and goals exhibited in how you chose to spend your leisure time.
All schools appreciate students who have been active in their communities. This is because they seek students who are likely to become involved on their college campus. Once again, your community service should be consistent with your interests. The same student who is passionate about government and politics would find appropriate community service by volunteering to work on a political campaign or in the office of an elected official. These activities should take place throughout your high school years, and not just as a last minute volunteer service to include in your college application. Some students participate in summer community service projects hosted around the world. These are noble efforts. However, make sure that the trips that you select are truly community service endeavors and not just student tours. Serious volunteer ventures such as working on an aids project in Africa, rebuilding villages in Tsunami ravaged areas, or helping deliver food to hungry families are soul searching adventures that can provide life changing perspective.
The college essay is often a quickly written piece of the application. Don’t let it be! Many students are annoyed by the essay portion of the application. Instead, embrace it! You will probably never meet the admissions officer who will review your file, and determine if you will be admitted. This is your opportunity to let them get to know you. Don’t waste it! Give your essay topic and perspective extensive thought. Come up with a creative, insightful writing. Take plenty of time to review and revise it. If possible, ask your English teacher to critique it. When you press the submit button, make sure that you are very proud of this piece of work. Just remember that the essay can be the deciding element between two equally qualified students. Make sure that you present yourself as a unique individual who would be a credit to the university. Don’t forget that most admissions officers review approximately 10,000 applicants each year. Your essay must stand out if you are to give yourself a competitive edge.
Some students fail to understand the importance of the letters of recommendation. It is crucial that they are written by individuals who know you well, and can display that in their comments. Letters from influential people who know your parents do not impress admissions officers. Flooding the admissions office with lots of generic letters of recommendation will not advance your cause either. You should seek two or three carefully crafted letters from teachers, coaches, administrators or supervisors who can specifically discuss their experiences with you, and your potential asset to the university. These people are most persuasive if they can attest to your talents in your area of focus. If you are passionate about government and politics, be sure to include a recommendation from a teacher who can validate your excellence and excitement for the subject. You could also ask the supervisor of the Model United Nations program, or someone who you have worked for on a political campaign to validate your assertions. While students do not always see the final letter that is sent, you should be confident that the person you are asking will enhance your application package. These letters are important, and you want to make sure that you have the right people preparing them. You should politely ask the person if they would be willing to help you in your endeavor. You should explain where you have applied, and elaborate on your future goals. If the individual is shaky or uncertain, you should understand the message, and ask someone else. To ensure that the letter meets your needs, you should provide the individual with a written reminder of your accomplishments or a “brag sheet.” As a courtesy, you should include a self-addressed stamped envelope. Once the letter is completed, it is appropriate to follow-up with a note thanking the person for their time and assistance. Selecting the right people for this task again goes back to good foresight. Students should cultivate bonds with future letter writers over a period of time. It should be fairly obvious who knows you well, and would welcome the opportunity to assist you in your college quest. If you wait until the 12th grade to figure out who can do this, you might be left scrambling and fall short.
The key to preparing the best possible college applications is allowing ample time to properly complete each component. Students should have plenty of time to develop an outstanding finished package. I encourage students to begin the application the summer prior to their senior year. This affords them the opportunity to slowly work through the application without a time pressure, and lacking the outside interruptions of tests, homework, and school commitments. You should be updating your awards, community service, extracurricular activities, and work experience throughout your high school years. If you participate in community service, be sure to ask for proof of your contribution and the number of hours worked. By the time you get ready to prepare your college application, you may have forgotten, or the responsible person may no longer be available. All of your reminders and documentation should be placed in a “college file.” When you begin your application, this file will be a valuable resource to jog your memory, and assist with your activities summary. In all likelihood, you will have done more than you remember. The college essay should be reviewed and reworked many times before the finished product is submitted. That is difficult to accomplish when it is rushed at the last moment. Beginning early also allows students to fill in any last minute gaps in the application. If you are short on volunteer service, there are many opportunities to increase your participation over the school break. The school break between the 11th and 12th grade is also a great time to take an SAT/ACT prep course if your scores need improvement. The list of accomplishments or “brag sheet” for the letters of recommendation can be ready to go when school begins. It is wise to ask that letters of recommendation be written early in the school year when individuals can also take the time to ensure a good result. Remember that you need to give your letter writers sufficient notice, and you do not want to ask when they are inundated with many other requests. Such a situation lends itself to generic quickly written letters. If you think ahead, you will give yourself the luxury of time, and maximize your results. This will also minimize the stress of the application process. Remember, this is important! It can impact your future for years to come. Take it seriously, and work it methodically.
My son was right. The college tour was more beneficial to him. At the beginning of his high school journey, he had received first hand information from admissions officers. He knew what he had to do to achieve his goals. There is little advantage in learning the rules of the game when it is nearly over. One reason for getting educated early regarding the college admissions process is because the standards and requirements vary tremendously among schools. Therefore, obtaining at least basic information is important in order to prepare the student in advance to achieve their future college plans. I encourage you to at least begin the college discussion with your children by the beginning of the 9th grade. You can talk about goals, requirements for college, costs, and potential college considerations. You can allow your student to explore their interests and begin to develop a future strategy. By doing this, you can make informed decisions about curriculum, activities, community service, and test preparation. Remember, once your child completes a grade level, it is on the official transcript, and it cannot be undone. Therefore, take the time to ensure that the schedule is consistent with the future goals and that the selected courses will meet college requirements. By educating yourself and your child, you can be realistic about appropriate decisions and the best ways to improve your student’s chances of arriving at the goal. This strategy applies to all students whether they are Harvard bound or headed for a community college. Armed with all of the facts and plenty of time, you can help your child make sound choices that will create a successful path for the future.
About The Author
Georgia Fox is a U.S. College Admissions consultant specializing in working with expatriate and international students. For more advice on educating children abroad visit www.collegeconsultinginternational.com