Powerful Tools to get into College

By Elizabeth LaScala, PhD ;                                                                                                                                          

As a college advisor I give college related advice all year round. One of the most common conversations I have with families is about high school coursework—what to take, when to take it and how much it matters (to get into a good college). In order to give back to a community which has given so much to me, this article addresses this question in the most fundamental way possible. There are, of course, many special needs and unique situations to be considered. Still, there are some general principles that can apply to most of our students, most of the time.

If you are a high school student that is college bound you should understand that the most powerful tool to get into college rests in your hands. Simply stated, colleges admit students who show an interest in going to school. This statement rests on the premise that you like learning, since you are going to college to continue your education. So your best tool to help you get into college is to design a four year schedule that shows your commitment to learning, and your willingness and ability to take core coursework, and possibly some advanced coursework during your high school years. The recommendations below work well for each year in high school. A few are especially important for certain grade levels.

  1. Middle school sets the foundation for your high school curriculum. Work hard and do well in a foreign language and math in middle school and prepare to take geometry and the 2nd year of your foreign language in high school. Take your first laboratory science as well, biology. If the language you studied in middle school truly doesn’t suit your interests, switch to another language in your freshman year so you can still complete four years of a foreign language in high school. If language is not your ‘thing’ be sure to take at least three years and then supplement the dropped language with strong coursework that does interest you.
  2. Take core coursework. Remember, meeting minimum requirements does not make you a competitive applicant. In today’s college admission world that it is wise to go well beyond the minimum, not only to be admitted to college, but to be eligible for scholarships and grants to ease the financial strain of college costs. Continue taking core courses in all academic subjects, including English, mathematics, laboratory sciences, social sciences, and a foreign language (see the tip above if you are utterly convinced you must drop language.)  Five core subjects plus one elective is ideal for your senior year. In earlier grade levels you will have additional coursework because you are taking physical education for two years and meeting your visual and performing arts requirement.
  3. Complete your VPA requirement early. The University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems as well as many other four year colleges require one full year of college preparatory coursework in the visual and performing arts. Don’t leave that to your junior or senior year. Unless you are an arts focused student, you will want to free up your schedule for academic subjects that help further explore and expand your interests, like creative writing, if you love composition or introduction to computer science, if you enjoy programming.
  4. Challenge yourself. If you took Honors or AP classes in earlier grade levels and enjoyed the challenge, continue taking advanced coursework in 11th and 12th grades. If you did not take advanced coursework in earlier grades, add one or two to your junior and/or senior year schedule.
  5. Use summers wisely. Colleges say that fancy summer programs that cost a great deal of money and don’t enhance your education add little, if anything to the college application. On the other hand, taking a college level class for credit to open your eyes to a new academic interest or add depth to an existing one does add value to your college application. So does being gainfully employed or participating in a program that builds substantive skillsets (like laboratory methods or customer relations), or doing an activity that helps meet a specific goal (like earning the President’s Service Award or your Girl Scout Gold Award). These types of endeavors strengthen the college application because they strengthen YOU.

Don’t misunderstand these recommendations. You are not participating in a summer program, taking core coursework or performing an activity in order to ‘get into’ college (although this may well be one of the rewards); you are doing it to help you better understand yourself and what you want to do in college and beyond. Parents, teachers and counselors support your college aspirations by helping you understand and use the power of your high school years.

Elizabeth LaScala, Ph.D. is an independent college advisor with 25 years of higher education experience to help guide students and their families through the complete college admission process. Dr. LaScala also works with individuals seeking assistance with graduate and professional degree programs. Call her at (925) 891-4491 or [email protected]. Visit www.doingcollege.com for more information.