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April 21, 2015

Rolling the Dice on Law School

There's an excellent article on the stage of law school education in the Washington Post: "Why Law Schools Are Losing Relevance—and How They're Trying to Win It Back."

Bottom line: "Going to law school used to feel like a no-brainer for college graduates seeking financial security. But that calculus has changed...."

My thoughts, as a I reflect on the article:

Two rules:

(1) Borrow money for a top law school only.

(2) Start law school with some kind of game plan from Day 1.

And for anyone considering a non-top law school:

Investigate recent employment stats (at Law School Transparency, because many law schools themselves fudge their numbers), and look up the bar passage rates, too. There's no shortage of grim data. And go into the process assuming you *won't* be a special snowflake in law school and defy all the odds. How does the average student fare at School X, Y, or Z?

And a note to parents, who often have totally outdated assumptions about the security of a law degree, any law degree: Those days are long gone for all but a tiny number of law schools, and even there, students are pounding the pavement more than they used to.

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college and graduate school applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and submit their best applications possible. Read more law school tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions. 

April 13, 2015

Super Secret Application Instructions

Law schools can be terrible about including their application instructions in the application form itself. Always — always! — check their websites, where they often bury important instructions on random sub-pages. You'll find them after lots of clicking around.

Here's an example. University of Louisville gives these instructions for the personal statement in the application itself:

A personal statement is required. Please upload your personal statement.

Here's what it says on its website, on a page called Application Checklist:

A personal statement must be submitted with the application for admission. The personal statement is an open-ended essay written on any topic the applicant chooses. The statement should be two to three pages in length and well written. It is recommended that you have several individuals proofread and edit your statement prior to submission. Ideally, the personal statement will provide insight to the admission's committee about the applicant's personality and what they will bring to the University of Louisville. The personal statement is uploaded to your credential assembly service account. 

And that's if you happen to spot the "Application Checklist" link on this page, which you get to from a tab called "Future Students":



 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

That's just one example; there are lots more out there that could serve as illustrations. Hats off to schools that do a good job incorporating their instructions into their application forms. They are few and far between! In the meantime, as an applicant, the burden is on you to go hunting for instructions. Go figure.

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college and graduate school applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and submit their best applications possible. Read more law school tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions.
April 7, 2015

52 Weeks to College: Week 41 -- How to Evaluate Your Financial Aid Awards

You've been admitted to the college of your dreams and now you're wondering whether you can really afford to go to school there. You want to compare your financial aid packages before you choose between where you are going to college. You really need (or would really like) an increase in your financial aid award, but you are not sure if you should. Any of these circumstances apply to you? If so, this week's tips and tricks are just what you need.

Week 41 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary. 
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

This Week

  • Continue evaluating your choices for college. 
  • Evaluate your financial aid offers and decide if you are going to ask for a revision to any.
  • Schedule/plan your post-acceptance visits.

Tips & Tricks

1. When evaluating whether a college is affordable for you, be realistic about your actual cost of attendance.

The college will set a "cost of attendance" based on its own policies and standards and your financial aid award will only provide funds to cover the specified "cost of attendance." But the college's policies and standards may or may align to your particular circumstance. For example, Boston College allows a total of $2200 for books and miscellaneous expenses, including your travel expenses to and from your home. But what if your home is in Honolulu instead of nearby New York City? Your travel costs will obviously be more. Will their allowance be enough or do you need to find additional funds to cover the extra costs you will incur? The time to consider whether you will REALLY have enough money to pay for your first year of college is now. 

2. When comparing financial aid offers from different colleges, compare the components of the aid as well as the total amount of aid awarded.

College X and College Y have the same cost of attendance and both have offered you $25,000 in financial aid. So the awards are equal, right? Maybe,but maybe not. You need to read the details to determine what makes up the $25,000 in aid. As it turns out, College X has offered $15,000 in scholarship and grants that do not have to be repaid and $10,000 in loans and work-study. College Y has offered only $5,000 in scholarship and grants that do not have to be repaid and the $20,000 balance in loans and work-study. From a financial perspective, College X's financial aid package is much better for you. 

3. Courteously asking for an increase in your financial aid award is wise if your circumstances support such a request.

There are two circumstances when you should ask for an increase in your financial aid award. The first circumstance is when your family's financial situation has changed substantially since you filed your financial aid applications. For example, if one of your parents has lost his or her job, it would be appropriate to request a review of your financial aid award. The second circumstance is when you have received a higher award from another comparably selective college. In this circumstance, you should investigate whether the college you want to increase your aid has a policy of "matching" awards. Some colleges do. For example, Cornell will match awards made by other Ivy League colleges, Stanford, Duke, and/or MIT. If you cannot determine what a college's policy is regarding "matching," then politely inquire. 

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

April 2, 2015

Will Law Schools See My Non-US Transcripts?

I had about two semesters worth of credit from US undergrad schools, then another two from St. Andrews in Scotland, before leaving school for awhile. I’m finishing up through the University of London International Programme this May. The LSAC put my US GPAs on the report and then just put “foreign” for the st. andrews and uol grades. How might law schools consider this? Do they look at the individual transcripts or just the lsac report? My US GPA was really great, but the uol classes have been so-so given that I also am working beyond-full-time while finishing.

It sounds as if you have a lot going on, my friend! Life is like that sometimes. Not everyone experiences one smooth, contiguous journey through college. In fact, the majority of college students don't. 

Let's unpack the two questions that are bundled together in this scenario.

Will law schools see your international transcripts?

For readers who aren't familiar with how LSAC handles international transcripts, you can find their rules here. Since you'll be receiving your college degree from a non-US/non-Canadian institution, there are also separate rules around that here. You might have the option, or even be required, to submit your University of London transcript to LSAC's "authentication and evaluation feature" for international transcripts (which is separate from, and sometimes additional to, the Academic Summary Report that regular US-based applicants have). Will law schools see the underlying transcripts in the application stage? Here's where it gets tricky, and I'm bolding the relevant bits:

The Credential Assembly Service's (CAS) authentication and evaluation feature is a convenient and efficient processing service for international documents used in the law school application process. All non-US/Canadian transcripts with combined work totaling more than one academic year should be listed during registration for CAS and sent to LSAC. They are forwarded to the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), where they will be authenticated and evaluated. There is no charge for this evaluation other than the standard CAS registration fee. The data is assembled into a credential evaluation document that contains AACRAO's summary, copies of the transcripts (and translations, as necessary), and a TOEFL or IELTS score, if applicable. All of these documents will be incorporated into the law school report. Upon submission of a matriculation decision, the original non-US/Canadian transcript(s) received by LSAC will be forwarded to the law school. Law schools can choose their level of participation in this service. The following links list law schools that require use of LSAC's authentication and evaluation service for JD applicants or law schools for which LSAC authentication and evaluation is optional. [Source here.]

So whether the individual law schools will see the international transcripts or not is up to them, and you'll have to dig through those LSAC lists linked to above to get a definitive answer. If you're still not sure after wading through all that wugga-mugga, call or email LSAC directly.

How will schools evaluate your so-so grades at University of London?

Admissions officers are pretty powerful people, but — for better or worse — they can't read minds. So if all they have in front of them is a transcript, with no further explanation of what's behind certain grade trends, you leave that backstory to their imaginations. Not all backstories are worth sharing. Hypothetically, if your grades had been so-so because you were spending too much time drinking at the pub, you'd be better off not trying to justify or spin your grades. As I like to say about a lot of addendum ideas that applicants have, it's best to let that sleeping dog lie.

But if you were working beyond full-time, as you say, that's important backstory for them to have. There are sections in the application form that ask you to list your work history along with dates and time commitments, but you'd be relying weary-eyed admissions officers to be able to connect the dots and piece all that together in a quick read-through, that might be expecting too much. In that case, I'd write a short addendum explaining the commitments you had outside of school during that time period. Or you can add a bullet in your resume, in the University of London section, where you say that you were working full-time while taking classes. Either of those solutions would get the point across.

Good luck!

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founder of Ivey Consulting. She and her team help college and graduate school applicants make smart decisions about their higher education and submit their best applications possible. Read more law school tips in The Ivey Guide to Law School Admissions.

March 31, 2015

Juniors: Common Application Essay Topics are Out, But Don't Start Writing Until July!

Juniors, have you been on pins and needles wondering what the essay topics will be for next year? If so, your agony is over. The Common Application released the 5 essay topics that will appear on next year's Common Application today. They are:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

In case you are wondering, only topic #4 is new; the others have been options for the last two years. (Although the wording of topics #1 and #2 got streamlined and modified slightly, they really didn't change.) 

Now that you know the topics, should you get to work on writing your essays? We don't think so. Essays written now tend to go stale by the time it is time to submit them. And for more than half of the colleges that accept the Common Application, this essay isn't going to be the only essay on the application. To produce your best application, you need to approach it as a whole, so you need to know what the other essay questions on the application are before you tackle this Common Application essay. Experience has taught us that the optimal time to begin working on your essays in late July-early August.

So what should you be doing now to get a jump on the college application process? First things first -- focus on building your credentials. That means:

  • Finishing your junior year with your best grades ever.
  • Preparing for and taking the standardized tests.
  • Making plans for doing something during the summer to take your academics or activities to the next level.

Once you've got your credentials in order, then you can move on to the essential "pre-work" you have to do before you are ready to dig into the applications themselves. As we explain in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Applicationyou've got to do three things to before you are really ready to begin completing your applications (or drafting your essays). 

  • Make the big decisions regarding your college list -- Where are you going to apply? And where, if anywhere, are you going to apply early?
  • Write "your story" -- a summary statement of who you are that will be your guide for choosing the right essay topics.
  • Put together your resume. 

You can read more about how to do the pre-work by consulting the blog postings for week 2 and week 3 in our 52 Weeks to College series based on our book.

March 31, 2015

52 Weeks to College: Week 40 -- I've Been Wait-Listed...What Should I Do?

Being wait-listed may be the cruelest fate of them all. You want a decision. You need a decision. And instead, you get a decision that isn't a decision. What do you do now? This week we offer you 5 essential dos when it comes to handling being wait-listed.

Week 40 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary. 
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

This Week

  • Decide which, if any, wait list offers you are going to accept and then take the recommended steps below to maximize your chances of being admitted from the wait list.
  • Continue evaluating your choices for college. 
  • Schedule/plan your post-acceptance visits.

Tips & Tricks

1. Do hold a spot on a wait list if you know that if you received an offer from this college, you would accept it immediately, and you would happily turn down all of your other offers of admission. If you would not accept that offer of admission, then there is no reason for you to be on the wait list. Staying in limbo keeps you from moving forward, directing your energies to ending your senior year well, and investing emotionally in the college you will attend. Keeping yourself in the running for a college you will not attend is also unkind to others on the wait list who really do want to attend that college. Be a good applicant citizen and do the right thing.

2. Do send an update to be added to your application file with any positive news you have to share. Good grades on your most recent report card? Forward a copy of your most recent grade report and ask your school counselor to send an optional report in support. Any new academic honor or award? Share the news in your email update. Likewise, if you have had major developments on the activity front, let the admissions office know – especially if they demonstrate passion, talent, initiative and/or impact (the core four)! (If you've forgotten about the core four, refer back to chapters 4 and 8.)

3. Do communicate that you will accept an offer of admission if made in your update. Colleges are not interested in admitting applicants off the wait list who are going to say “no.” It decreases their yield (yield is the percentage of applicants who accept offers of admission), and yield is important to rankings. Communicate your intentions directly and forthrightly to the college in your email. If you have never answered the “Why College X?” question (because it was not asked on the application), then incorporate a brief answer to “Why College X?” in this communication.

4. Do ask anyone you know who has influence with the college to send a note of support for your admission. Because the college is focused on serving its institutional goals when admitting from the wait list, admissions officers are very attuned to who is advocating for particular applicants. Here is the short list of possible influential advocates:

  • Your school counselor, if he or she has a relationship with an admissions officer at the college or your school is a feeder school for the college (feeder schools provide a steady stream of students to the college every year) 
  • Anyone you know who is a graduate of the college, if he or she has been involved with the college since graduation as a volunteer, donor, and so on Anyone you know with a high-level contact at the college (a high-level contact would be someone like the president or one of the vice presidents of the college, a board member at the college, or a particularly influential faculty member at the college) 
  • Anyone you know who is on the board, faculty, or senior staff at the college Anyone you know who has been a major donor to the college (a major donor would have been recognized for at least a six-figure gift and might have something at the college named in his or her honor).

5. Do be prepared to respond to an offer of admission promptly. You are often asked to respond to an offer of admission within a short period of time – sometimes as short as 48 hours. So stay on top of your email and telephone messages and be ready with your answer! 

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

March 24, 2015

52 Weeks to College: Week 39 -- I Haven't Heard Anything...What Should I Do?

This is the week when all should be revealed. The vast majority of colleges will release their decisions before April 1, so if you haven't heard yet, this is the week you should hear. So what if you don't hear? No news is definitely problematic, especially when you are waiting to hear from your top choice college. This week we focus our tips and tricks on what to do if you haven't heard anything from one or more of the colleges on your list.

Week 39 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary. 
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.

This Week

  • Get your decisions -- you should know from every college on your list within the next two weeks.
  • Continue evaluating your choices for college. 
  • Schedule/plan your post-acceptance visits.

Tips & Tricks

1. Verify that you should have heard something. 

Before you take any kind of action, you need to verify that there is something amiss. Just because you've heard that decisions are out for College X via the grapevine doesn't mean that it's true. Check the college website or call the college admissions office to verify that ALL decisions have been released. Some colleges release all decisions at the same time; other colleges release decisions in groups.

2. Doublecheck that you haven't heard something.

Colleges notify applicants of their decisions in different ways. Check these three places before you assume that they haven't notified you:

  • Check your application status online. If the college made it possible for you to monitor your application status online, then they often post decisions online and expect you to check there to get your decisions. 
  • Check your email carefully -- including your trash and spam folders. Many colleges send their decision letters via email and a shockingly high percentage get funneled to your trash and spam folders! So check those. Also open every email in your inbox -- the email may have come from a different address than you expect.
  • Check your snail mail at the permanent mailing address on your application. Admissions letters do still come by snail mail, so don't overlook checking there. Also be sure you are checking snail mail at the right address. These letters are usually sent to the permanent mailing address given in your application. Boarding school kids and gap year travelers need to be especially alert to this possibility. 

3. Take immediate action if decisions really are out and you really haven't heard.

This is the time for an antiquated 20th century method of communication – the phone call.  During this phone call, you have one mission – get the information necessary to resolve whatever is keeping you from getting your decision.  Notice that we don’t say your purpose is to get the decision.  Why?  Mostly because admissions offices generally have policies that prohibit sharing a decision over the telephone.  But, the quickest and best way to learn what you need to do to actually get your decision is to talk to someone at the college.  

  • Go to a private, quiet place and call the Admissions Office during their regular business hours.  Be prepared to sit on hold if necessary.  

  • When you get a live person on the other end, politely state your problem.  “I’m calling because I applied for entry into the freshman class of 2011 and I understand you sent decision letters/emails out, but I haven’t received my letter/email [or when I log in, there is no decision posted for me].  Can you help me figure out why I haven’t gotten my decision yet?”  
  • Regardless of what the reply by the admissions officer is, your primary focus needs to be staying calm and accomplishing your mission.  Say, for example, that the admissions officer says, “You haven’t received a decision letter because we have no record of your application.”  
  • Now this reply completely freaks you out, because you absolutely positively know they got your application and you are beside yourself that your top choice college would screw up your future this way.  How could they do that to you?  But before you share your freak out with the admissions officer, take a breath and remember the mission of this call.  You just need information so that whatever problem there is can be resolved.  Sooner rather than later.  
  • So, take a breath.  Then reply politely and evenly, “Wow there must be some mistake.  I submitted my application on December 15 and I have the email reply confirming receipt here.  What should I do?”  The admissions officer will then walk you through what to do and the admissions office will bend over backwards to correct their mistake.

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

March 21, 2015

What Can Your 11th Grader Do Now to Prepare for College Applications This Fall?

If you are a planner by nature and like to avoid last minute rushes, there’s some foundational prep work your 11th grader can be working on now before crunch time hits in the fall of 12th grade. One of the foundational exercises we go through with rising seniors is to have them create an old-fashioned resume. 

That might sound strange at first. It's true that students don’t upload a conventional resume as part of the Common Application (or most other application platforms), but creating a 1-2 page resume the way mom or dad would understand the term helps applicants prioritize what activities and experiences they'll want to showcase not just in the Activities section of the application form, but throughout the entire application. It is a key part of figuring out what to highlight (or deemphasize) in a format that requires prioritization (as the application will, too).

We’ve found that sometimes students are very good judges in deciding which activities deserve priority on the resume (and in the application itself), and sometimes it’s the parents who have the better perspective. Respecting boundaries in the application process is always a delicate balancing act for parents, so the resume is a great place where you as the parent can be a helpful conversation partner and a gut-check before your student starts working on the applications themselves. The key here is to be mindful of Ivey Strategy #2: Think Like an Admissions Officer. (The Ivey Strategies we refer to on our blog are the strategies we use throughout our book How to Prepare a Stand-Out College Application.) It helps if you can take off the mom or dad hat and try to put on an admissions hat. You probably know intuitively that those are very different roles, but in practice it can be hard to separate the two, and it helps to be mindful of the difference.

For example, your daughter might think that having served as chair of the school's Winter Ball committee is the most important activity to feature, whereas you might be lobbying hard to include the fact that she has won top reviews as the Zumba instructor at a well regarded grown-up gym in your neighborhood. Actually, neither activity is as significant for application purposes as the student group she co-founded at school to provide dance classes to students, after having negotiated with the school administration to grant P.E. credits, no less.

Or if your daughter wants to emphasize that she’s a competitive athlete, then maybe "Athletics" should have its own section in the resume, because as a group those activities are a bigger part of her profile than the non-sports activities she's involved in. Because she's not in a time crunch (yet), she has time to play around with different sections and different orders on the resume. What if she puts these three things or those four things together? How does that change the theme and the overall impression? Grouping things together in different ways and in different places on the resume can be much more revealing for brainstorming and strategy purposes than making one giant, jumbled list of activities, or simply putting all of it in chronological order.

The larger purpose of this resume exercise is to be thinking about the bigger portrait of the applicant. What matters more? What matters less? What should or shouldn't make the cut? How much detail and space does one thing or the other deserve? It can be hard to make those positioning decisions when you're not being forced to do so by space constraints and formatting choices. In this case, the constraints are your friend. They give you control over the first impression you want to make. 

Here’s an example. A student might tell us that he wants to focus on tennis in the Activities section of the resume, because he’s been playing for ten years. So we reply, “Oh that’s great! Do you play singles or doubles?” Student: "Uh, actually I haven’t really thought about singles versus doubles.” That reply is a strong signal not to feature tennis in the Activities section, because tennis is more of a long-time hobby for him than a serious athletic pursuit. In that case, we would recommend listing it in the Personal section of the resume instead. That's because anything that goes into the Activities section needs some meaningful detail around it. Michael Phelps can get away with a one-liner for an important activity (“Olympic swimmer”), but most people can’t.

If you want to see what a resume looks like in a teenage context, here are some samples to guide you. Notice how each student has made intentional and thoughtful use of both the space and the formatting for the purposes of positioning. Do you see how those choices influence how you think about an applicant whom you've never met? (These examples and samples are all anonymized or fictionalized, naturally.) Each of the sections and items in these samples reflect choices about what to highlight and what to deemphasize. Now that you know the purpose of the resume exercise, can you figure out some of the the decision-making that went into them and why?

March 17, 2015

What Courses Should I Take in High School?

Back in the olden days, there was a standard school day, a singular college prep curriculum and very limited “electives.” It made the decisions about what courses to take pretty simple and there weren't many ways to go wrong.

Not so in the 21st century. Now, there are multiple structures for school days, multiple college prep curricula, and abundant choices for requirements and electives. Honestly, many high school course listings are indistinguishable from the course catalogs for many small liberal arts colleges. Not surprisingly, the decisions about what courses to take are much more complex and you can definitely go way wrong. How wrong? Total derailment – by that we mean taking yourself completely off track for being admitted to the college of your dreams. Whoa, really?  Really.

That’s why we spend a good portion of our spring advising students (starting in 7th grade) about which courses to choose for the following year. As we work through their choices, we've discovered that there are 7 guidelines we use with almost every student. We're happy to share them with you.

Guideline #1:  Understand the choices available to you. 

You can’t make good choices without information. So get to work and do a full investigation into the choices available to you. Start with actually reading the materials produced by your school. Move on to speaking with your guidance counselor, teachers, and other students. By combining reading with a good grapevine, you’ll have the information you need to make your decisions. 

You’ll know you understand the choices available to you when you can answer these questions fully and accurately:

  • How many class periods do you have in your schedule?
  • What courses do you have to take to meet the graduation requirements at your high school? 
  • What courses are offered as electives? 
  • What do you have to do to be eligible for honors, AP, IB, or other “enriched” courses? Are there any rules that limit the number of AP or honors courses you can take in a given year?
  • Who is considered the best teacher in each subject area?
  • What courses are prerequisites for the courses you want to take your junior and senior years?
  • Are there any scheduling conflicts that force you to make certain choices (e.g. you can't take Math with Ms. Parsons if you want to take English with Mr. Levy)?
  • Does your high school offer you opportunities to take courses elsewhere, e.g. local community colleges or online?

Guideline #2:  Take 5 academic solids each year.

Even though there are now multiple college prep curricula out there, colleges are steadfast in their expectations of the course work high school graduates will have completed (and knowledge they will have acquired) before they begin college. Here is the “can’t go wrong” college prep curriculum – it will prepare you for every college from the least selective to the most selective:

  • 4 Years of English
  • 4 Years of the Same Foreign Language
  • 4 Years of Math (through at least Precalculus)
  • 4 Years of Science (including Chemistry, Biology, Physics)
  • 4 Years of History/Social Studies (including U.S. History and World History)

So before you start exploring choices for electives, do a quick audit to make sure you have the 5 academic solids covered. Because these are pretty much non-negotiable. You need them both to get into AND to succeed in college. 

Of course, this guideline constrains your choices. But no sympathy here. You need to keep yourself focused on the primary reason you are enrolled in a college prep curriculum in the first place — to prepare for college!  If you have a different long-term goal, then by all means consider a different set of core courses. But if you want to get into and graduate from college, this is what you should be learning in high school.

One note for those who attend high schools that aren’t really designed for college prep: If you CAN’T take these classes at your high school, then look into transferring into another high school where you can or getting permission to take these classes at another high school, a local community college, or online. (In our opinion, online should be last resort because I believe that there is value in the interpersonal interaction of a classroom.) If there is simply no way to structure a college prep curriculum for yourself, then do the best you can and accept that you may have to do some pre-college studies before you are eligible for admission to a four-year university.

Another note for international students: High school curricula vary greatly worldwide and are generally designed to suit the needs of a particular higher education system. So unless you are in an American school, you probably will not take U.S. History. These kinds of variances in curricula are understood by admissions officers and can be accommodated.  However, if you are serious about attending college in the U.S., it is particularly important that you pay attention to Guideline #7 — seeing your courses through the eyes of an admissions officer.

Guideline #3:  Math must be taken and passed in the regular school year, every year. If possible, make it through Calculus by the time you graduate.

Math is pivotal to your future. This is true for anyone who aspires to graduate from college in the U.S. and it is double-triple true for anyone who aspires to be admitted to and graduate from any of the 400+ selective colleges in the U.S. Why do we say this? The data. First, you'll increase your performance on the standardized tests if you learn your math. A study of 2010 SAT test takers showed that students who successfully completed precalculus or calculus had test scores higher than the mean on all three sections of the test (that's right — higher reading, math, AND writing scores) while students who only completed Algebra II had test scores lower than that mean on all three sections of the test. Second, you'll be more likely to graduate from college if you successfully complete more math in high school. One of many studies on this topic showed that only 34% of those who stop with Algebra II go on to graduate from college, but 55% of those who make it through Precalculus go on to graduate from college and a whopping 73% of those who make it through Calculus in high school go on to graduate from college. We hope we've convinced you — whatever you do, prepare for success and successfully complete as much math as possible in high school.  

One note: math is not a subject that generally lends itself to compressed instruction, so be cautious about trying to accelerate your math by taking summer school.  

Guideline #4:  Structure your schedule so that it is challenging, but not overwhelming.

News flash: School is supposed to be hard work. Furthermore, people, in general, find any activity more interesting and satisfying if it poses a bit of a challenge. So embrace the notion that your high school schedule should be challenging. If you understand every single concept right away or can get away without doing homework or can ace a test without studying, then your course load is not challenging enough. Step it up -- take a higher level course or take more courses. But if you are frequently lost in class, spend hours on homework every night and still are behind, or can't sustain a solid B or better average, then your course load is too challenging. Drop back to a lower level course or drop a course. If you are already taking the regular level courses and a minimum load, then you need tutoring pronto. You've missed something along the way and now is the time to get caught up.

So how does this guideline generally translate into real life course schedules? If you are an "above average" student with a typically busy teenage life who also gets a reasonable amount of sleep (in other words, you have a healthy, balanced life), it usually means that you end up with a schedule that has 2-3 courses at the advanced level (AP, Honors, etc.) and 2-3 courses at a regular level.  

Guideline #5:  Think beyond the GPA and leverage your course work -- go for two-fers and three-fers whenever possible.

We find that many high school students use one criterion to decide which course to choose among the several offered: What grade will I get and how will that grade impact my GPA and/or class ranking? This is particularly true if grades in certain classes are weighted. Students invariably choose the course that is most likely to result in plumping up the GPA. Now many in the college counseling world come completely unglued when students confess that this is their decision making criterion. We're not in that camp, largely because we think it is hypocritical to evaluate students on their grades and then be appalled that students try to maximize their grades. So it is A-OK with us for students to exhibit some strategic impulse when it comes to choosing courses, but we want to encourage them to think beyond the GPA and leverage their course work for more than the easier A in junior year. Go for two-fers and three-fers whenever possible!

What do we mean by that? Let's say that you could take AP World History or AP Government in your junior year. You're inclined to go with AP Government because you think it will be the easier A, but you are pretty sure you could maintain your current GPA and class rank with a B in AP World History. If you don't think beyond your GPA, you'll opt for AP Government, because why not boost that GPA a bit?

But here's where two-fer and three-fer thinking becomes relevant. You know you want to apply to a college that requires 2 SAT Subject Tests. If you take AP World History, you've prepared yourself for the SAT Subject Test in World History at the same time -- a two-fer. There isn't an SAT Subject Test that corresponds to AP Government, so it doesn't offer a two-fer.  And then you do a smidgeon more research and learn that the same college that requires the SAT Subject Tests allows you to "place out" of the general education requirement to take a course in World History if you complete AP World History and get a score of 3 or more on your AP World History exam. No corresponding advantage for taking AP Government. Now AP World History is a three-fer! So now what do you choose AP World History or AP Government? You know the answer.  

Guideline #6:  With electives, follow the teacher, not the subject.

Often we find that students confront a tough choice when they have to choose between taking an elective course with a great teacher in a subject that they aren't really excited by or a course with an okay teacher in a subject they love. Our advice is always the same: follow the teacher, not the subject. Great teachers make you a better student and learner. They coax you into better thinking, stimulate you to approach information differently, and inspire you to do more than you ever thought you could. These are things you can't do for yourself. These are the things that make attending a class worthwhile. And if following the teacher means that you have to assign yourself some outside reading or seek out an after-school or summer program to stay current with a subject you love, that's absolutely fine. In fact, that kind of independent pursuit of knowledge is exactly the kind of thing a student destined for admission to and graduation from a selective college does.  

Guideline #7:  Analyze your schedule through the eyes of a college admissions officer at the colleges you aspire to attend and see if that pushes you one way or another.

One thing that most high school students simply don't understand is that college admissions officers at different colleges will analyze a transcript differently because each of those colleges will have their own preferences regarding college preparatory curriculum. Visit the websites of the colleges on your list and read what the admissions says about what they prefer. You'll find some subtle but important distinctions. In fact, even colleges with the same "general focus" and level of "selectivity" will vary in their recommendations.  

For example, three of the "top" math/science focused colleges in the U.S. look for slightly different things — MIT wants biology in addition to chemistry and physics, but Caltech and Harvey Mudd don't include biology in their recommendations. All three expect calculus, but Harvey Mudd offers an alternative path if you won't complete calculus by senior year.  None of them recommend as many courses in history/social science or foreign language as I've suggested above because they are ALL ABOUT THE SCIENCE AND MATH. So how will the admissions officers at each of these colleges analyze your transcript if you decide to take a third year of Latin instead of doubling up on science and taking both Honors Physics and AP Environmental Science? Easy, right? They'd all say take the second science.  

But what if your choice were between taking a second year of Chemistry or a year of Biology? That one is a bit tougher. It seems that at MIT, the admissions officers won't be pleased, but the admissions officers at Caltech and Harvey Mudd would be fine with it.  (Of course, they'd all probably be happiest if you could take BOTH the second year of Chemistry and Biology, but that may not be your choice.) See why researching college preferences now can help you decide? If you want MIT, Caltech or Harvey Mudd more than life itself, your choices now matter!  

But what if you don't know exactly which colleges, but you do know you want to be competitive at the MOST selective colleges. I'd encourage you to get on the web and do a little research — take a sampling. In general, you will find that the most selective colleges expect that you will take the most challenging course load available at your high school AND do well in them all. But remember the advice above about "challenging, but not overwhelming."  

"Most challenging" usually doesn't translate into 5 APs or Honors; it usually translates into 2-3 APs as noted above. But don't take our word for it. Go visit the college counselor at your high school and ask him/her how he/she will rate your proposed schedule. Why ask the college counselor? Well, because he/she will be asked on his/her recommendation to rate your course selections and will be given the opportunity to rate it from "most demanding" to "not demanding." If you are aspiring to the most selective colleges, your schedule should elicit the "most demanding" rating from the college counselor. So ask him/her NOW before you finalize the schedule. If the counselor tells you your schedule will be "more demanding" but not "most demanding," ask him/her what it would take to move to a "most demanding" rating. Then consider adjusting your schedule accordingly.  

But again, REMEMBER the "challenging, not overwhelming" guideline. Getting C's in the "most demanding" courses gets you nowhere -- you won't be competitive at the most selective colleges and you will have damaged your chances at the other 375+ selective colleges where As and Bs in a "more demanding" courses are competitive, but Cs (even in the harder courses) aren't.  

One final note.

We have discovered that many students, parents, high school teachers or high school guidance counselors take issue with one or more of these guidelines. They typically object that a particular guideline will dissuade the student from pursuing the "best educational path." Without even debating the definition of the "best educational path," we have two responses to that feedback.

First, we're not trying to steer students along the "best educational path." We are giving students help navigating the best path to a particular destination: admission to a selective college. If that's not the goal, then these guidelines won't be as relevant or applicable.

Second, we firmly believe that all students have both the right and responsibility to determine their own destinations and select their own paths. So we've got no problem with students deciding that they don't really want to be admitted to a selective college, or that they don't want to follow the path we suggest. But we also believe that these choices should be INFORMED choices, and that's why we're putting these guidelines out there.

Comments or questions?

Do you have you own dilemma regarding what courses to take?  Post your quandry and we'll give you our best advice about how to decide.  

March 17, 2015

52 Weeks to College: Week 38 -- I Got In! How Do I Decide Where to Go?

Decision season. And the happiest of news has come to you. You got in! Even better, you got in to more than one college. What college will be your alma mater? That is your decision now. It is an important one, but it is not an easy one. This week we give you some ideas for how to evaluate your offers of admission and make your decision.

Week 38 To-Dos

Every Week

  • Check your email, voicemail, texts, and snail mail for any communications that relate to applying to college. Read them and take whatever action is necessary. 
  • Update your parents about what you’re doing. This regular communication will work wonders in your relationship with your parents during this stress-filled year.  

This Week 

  • Stay on top of school work -- senioritis often sets in right about now. Remember that all offers of admission are conditioned are your successful completion of high school!
  • Begin evaluating your choices for college.
  • Schedule/plan your post-acceptance visits.

Tips & Tricks

1. Evaluate your offers of admission with "fit" in mind.

Which of the colleges that have offered you admission is the best fit for you? Which meets your criteria the best? Where will you thrive? One decision making strategy that works well for many is to "chart it out." It is a strategy that forces you to take a step back and really evaluate what you want and what they offer. Click here for a how-to guide to using this strategy. You have until April 29th, then you are probably suffering from the decision paralysis induced by a case of perfectionism.  You are worried about making the right decision, when you should be focused on making a good decision.  As is often the case in life, there may not be one right decision here.  So you have to accept that and focus on making a good decision.  On April 29th, sit down and do the chart one last time, review it with a trusted advisor, and then accept the college that is the winner, resting easy that you've made a thoughtfully considered, well reasoned, GOOD decision!! 

2. Evaluate your offers of admission with "affordability" in mind.

Once you receive your financial aid award letter, you can evaluate how your offers of admission stack up in terms of affordability. Don't just think about whether you can afford to attend for the first year; think about whether you can afford to attend for as long as it will take you to graduate. Be sure and read the fine print of your award letter to determine whether your financial aid will be renewable each year you are in college and what, if any, conditions there are regarding renewal of your financial aid award after the first year. Once you have all the information, sit down with your parents and determine whether you can really afford to attend each college where you have been admitted. Being stressed about money is not conducive to having a great experience at college, so be realistic in your evaluation. 

3. Be alert to being overinfluenced by others as you make your decisions.

By others, we mean anyone but you -- parents, teachers, friends, random strangers, heroes, U.S. News ranking staff, the great college recruiter. All of these people may mean well and all of these people may have important input, but at the end of the day, this is your decision. Be a grown-up and make the decision informed by, but not determined by, the counsel of others.

About the Authors:

Alison Cooper Chisolm heads the college admissions consulting practice at Ivey Consulting. She came to private consulting after working in admissions for more than 10 years at three selective universities (Southern Methodist University, University of Chicago, and Dartmouth College).

Anna Ivey is the former Dean of Admissions at the University of Chicago Law School and founded Ivey Consulting to help college, law school, and MBA applicants navigate the admissions process and make smart choices about higher education.

You can find more college admissions tips in their book How to Prepare a Standout College Application (Wiley 2013), and follow them on Twitter and Facebook

About the 52 Weeks to College Series:

52 Weeks to College is a week-by-week plan for applying to college. It breaks this complex and difficult project down into weekly to-do lists with supporting tips and tricks for getting it all done. Based on the Master Plan for applying to college found in our book, How to Prepare a Standout College Application52 Weeks to College is designed for any applicant who intends to apply to top U.S. colleges. For those of you who are just discovering the 52 Weeks series and want to catch up, click here.

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