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USACollegeChat Podcast

Jul 7, 2016

So, parents of juniors (and parents of freshmen and sophomores who are thinking ahead) you had your first assignment in the college search process last week. It was a pretty big assignment and one that parents of freshmen and sophomores could easily start now so that they can do it at a calmer pace.

The point of the assignment was to do the exact opposite of what many experts might be telling you this summer. Our advice was to start expanding your teenager’s list of college options so that you are truly ready to narrow it in the fall. While that might seem counterintuitive as the summer days begin, we gave you a lot of great reasons to do it. If you forget them, listen to last week’s episode (Episode 81). Or just trust us.

We challenged you and your teenager to choose at least one college in every state to put on what we called “your teenager’s long summer list of college options.” And, for those of you who were too wimpy to do that, we offered these options:

  • Choose at least one college in each of 25 states of your choice to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options.
  • Choose at least two colleges in every geographic region of the U.S. to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options—plus, let’s say, two additional colleges in your home state.
  • Choose five public flagship universities to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options.
  • Choose at least one college not in the U.S. to put on your teenager’s long summer list of college options.

Then we challenged your teenager to read about each college on the list on the college’s website before talking with you and recommending whether it should be kept on the list. I can’t say often enough how much you can learn from reading a college website—and, more importantly, from reading 20 or 30 college websites. And, last week, we gave you a list of facts and figures for your teenager to look up on each website and write down. 

So, now we come to Assignment #2. Remember that the more you can get your teenager to do, the easier it will be for you and the more your teenager will likely learn; however, you will still need to provide some life experience and adult judgment.

1. Your Assignment #2

Download the Assignment #2 Worksheet

So, let’s return to the colleges on your teenager’s long summer list of college options, however many you have. Even if you did a lackluster job of Assignment #1, there are hopefully at least 20 colleges on that list and, even more hopefully, they are not all in your home state.

Have your teenager now look at the admission standards for incoming freshmen at each college. These can be found under various headings on college websites. Sometimes they are part of the narrative on the Admissions home page. Sometimes they are in something called a Class Profile (of students who enrolled) or an Admitted Student Profile (of students who were admitted, but did not necessarily enroll). Some of the information can be found if you search for “common data set” on the college’s website. The common data set data are both comprehensive and excellent. Some of the information can always be found if you do a Google search for College Navigator (sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics) and then search there by college. 

What we are talking about now are admission standards, not admission requirements. In other words, we are not talking about things you have to do in order to apply, like filling out the application, getting recommendations, completing supplemental essays, and the rest. We are talking about what the students are like who get accepted by the college and/or about the students who actually choose to enroll in the college. There are at least four pieces of information worth considering when judging your own teenager’s chances of being admitted.

Assignment #2 is to have your teenager find out three of these four pieces of information for each college on that long summer list. (Piece #4 will be coming up next week, so stay tuned.) Here’s why: Because these pieces of information looked at as a whole for a college might make you think twice about some of the colleges on the list. Again, make sure your teenager writes down or records in some more electronic fashion the information that he or she finds. It will be impossible to remember it all. 

2. High School Grade Point Average (GPA)

For most, but not all, colleges, your teenager will be able to find the average (typically, the mean) high school GPA of the students admitted to the freshman class the previous year or of the students who actually enrolled in the freshman class the previous year. This number will look like it is on a 4-point scale. For example, a great college might show an average high school GPA of 3.8, meaning that its admitted or enrolled students did really well in their high school courses.

But here is something that has changed a bit in the past decade or two. As Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses have become increasingly popular and as more high schools have started to weight students’ grades in those courses (and sometimes in their own honors courses as well), we have seen a rise in high school GPAs. In other words, when a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in a regular course, that A is worth a 4.0. But if a student in a high school with weighted grades gets an A in an Advanced Placement course, that A is worth a 5.0. The grade has more “weight.”

If a student in a high school with weighted grades takes a handful of Advanced Placement courses and gets an A in every one (worth a 5.0 every time) and an A in every other course (worth a 4.0 every time), that student’s GPA will be higher than a 4.0, for obvious mathematical reasons. Now, of course, that is unlikely to happen; but, when a student in a high school with weighted grades gets a B in an Advanced Placement course, for example, it is worth a 4.0, which will help his or her GPA more than a B in a regular course, which is worth only a 3.0.

Whether your high school does or does not weight course grades is something that should be part of the high school narrative profile that your high school’s counselor will send off to colleges with students’ high school transcripts. So that is helpful to colleges in judging your teenager’s GPA. 

Nonetheless, one effect of all of this weighting of high school course grades appears to be that average high school GPAs of incoming freshmen seem to be on the rise. We can tell this anecdotally by the fact that many colleges we profiled in our virtual nationwide tour of colleges (Episodes 27 through 53), including some not super-selective ones, post surprisingly high average GPAs for the incoming freshmen class—over a 3.5, for example. Perhaps college-bound high school kids as a whole group have gotten much, much brighter, but I am not convinced of that.

So, look carefully at the average high school GPAs that colleges are putting out there and prepare to be surprised. And, keep in mind, that some colleges will not provide one.

3. High School Class Rank

There have been a number of stories in the education media lately about school districts that do not want to name valedictorians any longer. Why? Because they have found that the competition for that spot sometimes comes down to a thousandth of a point in that GPA we just discussed and, further, because they have found that kids are so focused on getting that extra-high GPA that they will actually not take high school courses they would otherwise take to broaden their studies—or should take to prepare for college—for fear of hurting their GPAs. Wow. Forty years ago, we didn’t see that coming.

Of course, for many years, some high schools have simply not provided class ranks for a variety of reasons, and it is not a requirement from any governmental entity or governing body that high schools must provide class ranks. Similarly, some colleges will simply say they are not available for admitted or enrolled freshmen.

When they are available, class ranks will often be given as the percentage of admitted or enrolled freshmen who ranked in the top 5 percent or 10 percent or 25 percent or in the top tenth or in the top half or in the bottom half and so on of their high school class. Great colleges, for example, will show a very high percentage of admitted or enrolled freshmen in the top 5 percent or top tenth of their high school classes. Figures like these will give your teenager one way to judge how he or she stacks up against admitted or enrolled freshmen at a college, if your teenager has a class rank. And, by the way, some colleges will actually boast about the number of high school valedictorians they have in the freshmen class. 

4. Admission Test Scores

Well, we feel as though we have talked about this topic often, including discussions of the colleges that do not require any admission test scores and the colleges that are “test-optional”—that is, when students may provide them or not. Feel free to re-listen to early episodes on this topic.

But, in terms of judging a college’s admission standards, I will say that College Navigator does a good job of providing the percentage of students who submitted SAT and ACT scores as well as the SAT and ACT scores at the 25th percentile of students and at the 75th percentile of students. In other words, 25 percent of students scored at or below the score at the 25th percentile, and 25 percent of students scored above the 75th percentile, according to College Navigator. So, if your teenager’s scores fall above the 75th percentile, that is good. If your teenager’s scores fall right in the middle between the 25th percentile and the 75th percentile, that would be just about average for the college’s admitted or enrolled students. And if your teenager’s scores fall below the 25th percentile, that would not be nearly so promising in terms of being admitted.

Some college websites do provide the actual average, or mean, admission test score, and I find that helpful, too.

One last point, as we have said before. Many colleges that do not require the submission of SAT or ACT scores seem, nonetheless, to receive them from many applicants. Because those scores are usually quite good, it seems obvious that students with good scores do, in fact, supply them to test-optional colleges. How those scores figure into admissions decisions is anybody’s guess. But, I think that the point is this: If you have good SAT or ACT scores, you should probably submit them to test-optional colleges, even though they are not required. There are only perhaps a handful of colleges that say—flat out—that they do not want any test scores sent to them and that they will not use them for any reason, including Hampshire College, one of my favorites.

These three pieces of information—average high school GPA, high school class rank, and SAT or ACT scores—will give you one reasonable indication of whether a college your teenager is interested in should be kept on your teenager’s long summer list of college options. But don’t go throwing any colleges off just yet. There is plenty of time to do that later on.

Download the Assignment #2 Worksheet

The Kindle ebook version of our book, How To Find the Right College, is on sale for $1.99 all summer long! Read it on your Kindle device or download the free Kindle app for any tablet or smartphone. The book is also available as a paperback workbook.

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