There’s no such thing as a bad question. And when it comes to college admissions, many parents share the same doubts and anxieties. So I thought I’d address some of them here, because if you’re not already working with us (and we hope you will!), you may be wondering about these things, too.
Is a B in an honors class better than an A in a regular class?
You’ll find all kinds of different answers to this question on the internet. Highly reputable tutoring and consulting agencies will tell you that yes, a B in honors is better than an A in non-honors because it shows that the student is looking for a challenge. Or (depending on how your high school calculates GPA) they’ll tell you the A is better because colleges tend to look at grades before they examine specific courses taken. Some will respond (brutally) that what’s best is an A in an honors class.
But the truth is that it depends. A better way to approach this problem would be to ask a student why he or she wants to take the honors class to begin with, or if he or she wants to take the class. Simply focusing on what will “look better” to admissions committees sets students on the wrong track. Authenticity always “looks better” than packaging, regardless.
Has my son/daughter chosen the right topic for the college essay?
The college essay is maybe the most stressful part of applying to college—sometimes as much for parents as for students! Parents often worry that their kids aren’t portraying themselves in their best light, and sometimes they even have certain experiences that they absolutely want their students to discuss. The number one thing to remember, however, is that the college essay is a personal piece of writing. Its purpose is to allow admissions officers to hear a student’s voice, and get a sense of how he or she sees and experiences the world. In other words, prescribing a topic makes a student’s job far more difficult than it has to be. Students should write about whatever they are excited to write about. The choice of topic has very little importance. You’ve probably seen long lists of taboo topics online, but I am here to tell you that even clichéd choices like a championship sports game or an Outward Bound trip can be done well (although it can be tough with certain topics). Ultimately, what matters is how a student tells his or her story.
Does my son/daughter have enough extracurricular activities?
By now you may be getting sick of how I’m dodging these questions, but once again, the answer is: it depends. When it comes to extracurriculars, the key is quality rather than quantity. Admissions officers are looking for three basic things on an activities list:
Time commitment: For an extracurricular activity to help a student’s chances of getting into a top school, it should represent a meaningful time commitment. One commitment that takes ten hours per week is almost always preferable to five unrelated activities a student only spends an hour or two on every week. Colleges want to see focus and achievement, and it’s hard to get much done when you’re spread thin and can’t devote sustained attention to a project.
Commitment over time: Colleges also want to see direction and stamina, and it’s hard to demonstrate these qualities for students who don’t have the experience of sticking with one thing for three or four years in high school. This is why Pierre and I encourage students to begin exploring extracurricular interests as early as seventh or eighth grade, so that by the time they are entering ninth or tenth grade they have a clear sense of where their passions lie, and what they want to pursue.
Leadership: If a student is continually switching activities, it’s also difficult for him or her to rise to a position of leadership. And the fact is that top colleges want trailblazers and self-starters, not followers. These schools don’t take membership to student organizations and other clubs very seriously. They want to see that students are doing more than simply participating.
So all this is to say that students should be less concerned with the number of activities on their lists, and more focused on the commitment they demonstrate to their passions outside the classroom. Students who follow and focus their passion in this way end up spending their time more wisely, and often end up with more time to relax, rather than less.
What are SAT Subject Tests, and how much do they matter?
SAT Subject Tests are a clever invention by the folks at The College Board (for whom one giant exam clearly wasn’t enough) to get students to spend more time preparing for and taking standardized exams. The nice thing (relatively speaking) about these tests, though, is that unlike “the” SAT, they are content based, which generally makes them less painful to prepare for. The College Board offers tests in five different subject ares: math (I and II), science (molecular biology, ecological biology, chemistry and physics), English, history (U.S. and world), and an number of different foreign languages. Requirements for how many Subject Tests students must submit (or if, they need to submit any) vary a great deal from school to school, although generally speaking the most selective colleges and universities are the ones that ask for them (up to three Subject Tests at some colleges). Students should start thinking about these tests as early on as possible. I have worked with Freshmen who took, and did very well on the bio exams, for example. Ideally these tests should be taken once a student has completed the corresponding high school class, so that much of the material is fresh. It’s generally a good idea for multi-lingual students to take language Subject Tests if they are not taking the languages they speak in high school.
When do we need to begin worrying about applying to college?
I have been asked this question by parents of very young children (like, two and three years old). You do not need to worry about college if your child is in Kindergarten. You do not need to worry about college if your child is in fifth grade, either. Actually, I’m tempted to say that at no point do you need to worry about applying to college. College should not be an added stress—particularly for students. Rather, it should be seen as an important (for many) and highly enjoyable (for most) step along the way to whatever it is that a kid wants to do in life. Impactful extraccuricular projects and academic success aren’t just the key to an Ivy League education. They’re part of a student’s personal development, and are important long before the application process begins, and for a long time after a student graduates from college.