The College Search: High School Courses, Activities
November 30, 2009 (WPVI) -- When it comes time for your child to apply for college, one of the first things you'll be doing is assembling a resume of academics and activities that frame their high school career. If you haven't gotten an early start on this, you'll find it difficult to make your child look good "at the last minute". The resume generally ignores your child's grade school or middle school history and is much more concerned with what your kid has done in high school. So while it's important to lay some groundwork in grade school, the coursework and extracurricular activities your son or daughter undertakes after entering ninth grade are really what count the most.
CLICK ON THE VIDEO LINK ABOVE THIS STORY TO HEAR MORE ON HIGH SCHOOL COURSE WORK AND ACTIVITIES FROM LIZ ESHLEMAN, DIRECTOR OF COLLEGE PLANNING AND PLACEMENT AT DEVON PREPARATORY SCHOOL.
The level of coursework can vary, but if your student has the opportunity to enroll in some AP (Advanced Placement) or Honors courses, he or she should strongly consider doing it. The more of these your student takes, the better they're going to look to prospective universities, even if the grades are only average. Keep in mind that a C in an AP course is like a B in a comparable, regular course, and your child's grade point average (GPA) and class rank will actually get a bump just by passing the AP version. What's more, if your child scores several A's in AP courses, it's actually possible for them to graduate with a GPA above the standard 4.0 that a straight-A student taking only regular classes would earn. More importantly, taking AP courses shows college admissions officers that your student is willing to take on challenges, and doesn't mind a little hard work, both important factors when they decide which students to admit. If your student aspires to earn a seat at an elite school (for example, an Ivy League University), the credo is, "The more AP credits, the better". In fact, some Ivy League schools won't seriously consider a candidate with fewer than 7 or 8 AP or Honors courses on their resume. Advanced coursework may not matter so much at some smaller colleges, or even at some larger, state institutions, but it could place your child in a better position for Merit-based financial aid, and other perks. During a tour of Penn State's engineering school, we were told that the accepted students with the best grades got first dibs on the better housing options, for example. This is almost certainly the case at some other campuses.
A Note about AP course: college planning counselor Liz Eshleman (Devon Prep) notes in my linked interview that AP and Honors courses should only be considered if a student is apt to do fairly well in them. In other words, taking a number of AP courses and then scoring only a D grade in them is not going to impress college admissions officers. If a student is strong in a particular area, that's the area in which the AP courses should be considered.
Some parents assume that only the GPA and Standardized Test Scores (SAT/ACT) really matter to admissions officers, and it's true that these two items are usually the first to get consideration. What's significant to remember, however, is that most of your child's competition will probably be delivering similar numbers. The most important remaining opportunity for your child to standout on his or her high school resume is in the area of activities outside of the classroom. These activities should not be discounted; they can be a valuable component in framing your child's personality, and can even indicate the sorts of contributions your son or daughter is liable to make, once they are on campus. While the activities can be wide-ranging, admissions officers are most interested in seeing things that speak to a student's leadership abilities, and to their passions.
The leadership aspect sounded sort of daunting to us, at first, because as of sophomore year, our son hadn't done much more than being a member of a few clubs or organizations. But once we suggested the value of taking the lead on some things, he not only responded, he actually ended up enjoying it. And as it turns out, there are plenty of ways to get this sort of thing on a student's resume, without them having to win the election for class president. Here's what our son did: he organized a neighborhood food collection for the school's Service Club. When some friends decided to run for student government, he volunteered to be their campaign manager. Only one of the kids won, but in the true spirit of government patronage, he was offered a job as a class secretary, which involved proctoring a few school dances and charity events. This was mostly fun stuff, not all that time consuming, but an excellent item to slap on his resume. With these experiences under his belt, it was little surprise when, as a senior, he decided to rescue the faltering chess club. He recruited a new moderator, recruited players, and captained the team, making board assignments at the meets. Again, it was a great leadership story that any college admissions officer could appreciate.
We couldn't have mapped out these resume items in advance. The key was getting our kid just a little motivated. After that, the opportunities started presenting themselves.
Showing a student's passions tends to be a little easier because most kids are happy to put time into the things they love. These resume-ready activities run the gamut from sports to the arts. Our kids were into everything from theater to ballroom dancing.
Don't forget about out-of-school activities
Another important thing to remember is that when it comes to extracurricular items, out-of-school activities also count, and in some cases, they can count for a lot. My daughter was generally a B student in high school with average SAT scores. But she won a sizable scholarship from her college, largely because of her years of non-school activities relating directly to her major. She wanted to study Animal Science, and was able to prove her commitment through her years of 4-H Club and volunteer wheels at the Philadelphia Zoo. We even included on her resume, the fact that she had hatched her own parakeets at home. This impressed the people doling out the money. This example also points out the importance of encouraging your children's passions by letting them get involved in activities that fit in with the things they love. You never know how handy these small, early allowances will be later on.
Summer seminars or camps that are somehow related to what your student may be interested in as a college major can also be helpful. But I will tell you that neither of our two college students did anything of that nature, and both received scholarship offers. I would make a judgment call on things like that, based primarily on your kid's genuine interest, as well as your ability to pay.
Finally, most colleges also want to see some job experience. So if at all possible, try to get the kids working, even if it's only a summer job before senior year. In my daughter's case, it was about 6 months part-time at a pet supply chain (which also meshed well with her college major). With my son, it was a couple summers at an ice cream shop, which had nothing to do with his prospective major (engineering), but was plenty good enough to satisfy the resume.
MORE COLLEGE SEARCH ARTICLES: When Will I hear If I'm In?, Submitting Applications, Wait List, When Must I Decide?, What If I Have Trouble Deciding?, What Is Merit Aid?, Need-Based Aid, Federal Need-Based Aid, Can I Ask For More Aid?, 529 Savings Accounts, Myths About The Cost, What Is Upromise?, The Best Way To Pay, College Troubles, College Depression, NCAA Athletics, Athletic Scholarships, The College Search Preface
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