A New Roadmap to College Admissions: What’s Important?
By Dr. Gina La Monica
In my last article, I wrote about the changes to the college admissions process due to COVID-19 including the optional college entrance exams (SAT or ACT), acceptance of pass/fail grading, little or no extracurricular activities to list on your application, limited or no Advanced Placement (AP) exam scores, no admissions tours to familiarize yourself with the admissions staff and college, and no school or youth sports used to strengthen your application. Both college admission staff and prospective college applicants are learning how to navigate this unchartered journey of college admissions without reliance on a decade-old recipe.
Many students are fretting over these changes knowing that the few factors that are left in the applicant review process are going to be scrutinized more intensely than in previous years. To be successful through these times of uncertainty, students should focus on what elements they still can control, such as the rigor of their course load. Colleges will be diving deeper into a student’s transcript looking for rigor and a pattern of academic achievement. With many extracurricular activities postponed for a year or longer, students should now spend more time on their studies taking higher-level courses that demonstrate academic success; course load will be of greater importance than in prior years. Classes that are more rigorous include honors, AP, advanced language, science, or math courses, and college courses. Students should take an assortment of these types of classes. Parents frequently ask me how many higher-level courses their child should take. There is no set number due to the many variables that affect a student’s course load, such as the availability of AP and honors courses at a particular high school. A student should complete with a C or better a blend of the most challenging courses at their high school and local community college to best demonstrate academic potential.
Students should also pay close attention to their grade point average (GPA) since this will be an area of heightened focus. Honors, AP, and dual enrollment courses will increase your weighted GPA; however, college applications separate weighted and unweighted GPAs so make sure you perform well in all your high school courses. Some colleges, such as the University of California, only take classes from their approved high school general education list so be particularly cognizant of these courses. Challenge yourself with advanced courses of study that you know you will excel in. I had a student who enrolled in many AP courses thinking it would improve his chances of being admitted to more selective colleges, but he ended up earning Ds in them. Most colleges do not accept Ds, although, high schools will accept a D for graduation purposes.
Lastly, college essays will play a considerably greater role this coming year. Before you start writing your essays, review each college’s mission, vision, and goals to ensure your theme aligns with their institutional priorities. Spend time writing your essays. The admission folks recognize quickly which students have spent extensive time on their essays. As a college instructor, it only takes me a few minutes to assess the quality of a manuscript. Start your college essays in the summer before your senior year giving you ample time to write many drafts. Be sure to have your essays reviewed by an English teacher or someone proficient in writing essays.
As you tackle the college admissions process, focus your attention on what factors you can enhance. Strengthen these areas as much as possible. If you can, take the ACT/SAT entrance exams. If you do well, submit these scores. These test scores will give you an advantage over the rest of the applicants. Try to volunteer, engage in extracurricular activities, and work even if it is only for a few months. These activities will yield extra points on your application.
As my colleague at USC affirmed, “USC will continue to take a holistic approach to review applications, taking every component of the application into consideration, and while academic rigor is important, it is one piece of the application; activities, essay, letters of recommendation, etc. will also be considered.”
Everyone is navigating through this unchartered path of college admissions. It will be a time of learning and adjusting for all involved.
Dr. Gina La Monica has a Doctorate in Education and has worked as a high school counselor, college administrator, and professor at many universities and colleges including the University of California, Los Angeles, California Lutheran University, California State University, Northridge, San Diego State University, etc. She was a tenured professor and an expert in career technical education and adult learning. She currently teaches at a local college and helps students of all ages from kindergarten to the university level with career exploration, college admissions, learning assessment, tutoring, and education plans.