Student Experiences

Ask Brad!

Should I never take an Advanced Placement (AP) class since I think I will only be able to earn a B, or should I take a regular class where I know I can earn an A?

Yes and no. Colleges will look at what challenging classes you took in high school and how you handled those challenges. However, your grades do matter. Therefore if you think that an AP class may be too much of a challenge, you already have other AP credits, and an exceptionally hard class may seriously jeopardize your GPA, take the class that will be less challenging. Yet if you have no previous AP classes and you’re confident you can earn at least a B, and maybe work extra hard for an A, take your chances! If you’re really struggling with this question, you may consider asking a college admissions specialist at your top several schools, or consulting a high school counselor who can help you challenge yourself without risking a good GPA.

Is it true that since I’m a talented athlete any school with my sport will want me, regardless of my academic record?

No, but congratulations on your athletic achievements! You certainly should be proud of your work in whatever your sport may be. But be careful – even though you know you’d make any college team proud, schools will still want you to be competent in the classroom. Colleges and universities are eager to demonstrate that they don’t detract from their institution’s intellectual mission, and are therefore likely to want student-athletes who can be an asset in the classroom as well as on the field. In high-profile situations, schools are also eager to avoid public relations controversies, such as media reports on how their brilliant athletes don’t do well in school. Help yourself be recruited by working as hard on your grades and leadership skills as you do in your sport. After all, a very, very small percentage of college athletes (much less than 1%) end up making a living playing sports – so it makes sense to develop yourself in academics and leadership as well as sport.

Since I am not valedictorian, I won’t get financial aid from a private school or probably any school, right?

False. Most financial aid is need-based rather than merit based, so the fact that you weren’t at the top of your class often has little bearing on financial support. Private colleges often want to attract a wide array of interests and backgrounds: schools would hardly be diverse, stimulating environments if they only admitted all the affluent, 4.0 students seeking to study chemistry. Take heart! Consistently good grades, challenging classes, extracurricular involvement, some leadership experience...these things indicate you are attractive as a student and as worthy of admission (and financial aid!) as the valedictorians.

I have heard that college is what you make of it and that one school is as good as the next. If that is true, shouldn’t I go wherever it is cheap and easy to get into?

No. There is a lot of truth to the notion that “college is what you make it.” After all, you can attend the best school in the world, yet if you don’t work hard, all could be for naught. Likewise, history is full of many remarkable people who went to mediocre schools – or didn’t attend college at all – yet they managed to be successful and happy. But don’t let this become an excuse for not making the best college choice possible! Find a college that fits you academically, emotionally, and financially. I’ve known many students who adopt this approach to mask fears – either that they can’t get into schools they want, or that they won’t be able to afford to attend schools of their choice, or they want to avoid the hard work to find and apply to an excellent school. Not all schools are created equal for you and your interests. You likely can study biology, or English, or whatever subject you like, at most schools. But it will probably be harder to focus on that area if your local university has weak faculty or poor facilities for your interests. Never let “college is what you make of it” prevent you from finding a school that will help enable you to do your best. Find a college - the right college.

Are there good schools out there that my family and I have not heard of?

Yes. Chances are that when you begin exploring higher education, you will all of a sudden hear about colleges and universities that you previously knew nothing about. Brochures and catalogs will likely find their way to you from all corners of the country, and perhaps even international schools will start to woo you via mail, e-mail, phone, and perhaps at recruiting events. Be sure to take the time to investigate schools that are new to you – sometimes the schools with the most name recognition are only famous because of an athletic program – and there may just be a perfect school for you and your interests. All you have to do is look, keep an open mind, and do your homework about any given school. What is most important is to find a college that fits you.

Are extracurricular activities relevant when it comes to college admissions?

Yes. While your number one priority in high school should be to focus on learning and achieving good grades, schools are interested in students who are active and engaged in the world around them. Consider two students who took the same classes and achieved the same GPA. It is likely that the student who worked on the yearbook staff, played on the soccer team, and did regular community service will have the edge over the student who only attended school and little else. The good student who has interests and is active outside the classroom appears to be a better candidate for contributing to campus life in college. Participating and achieving in hobbies, sports, leadership, clubs, and other extracurricular activities is indeed important, but only if you can balance those interests with quality school performance.

Will my life be ruined if you do not get into the perfect college?

No. While it may feel depressing when you receive a rejection letter, take a deep breath and remain calm. As I tell my clients, there is no such thing as a “perfect” college. Every school has good things and bad things about it. The best school for you will be where you can get the best education, where the good days outweigh the bad days. It may feel like you did excellent research and your top choice was the only college where you could succeed, but the reason you apply to more than one school is that you will be successful and do very well at several schools. Do your best to understand that excellence is not tied to a single school, but is a combination of your good attitude, hard work, and the good preparation you did in applying to several great schools. We can show you how to apply for college and how to get into college.

I want to go to medical/law/graduate school at a specific university, so should I go there for undergrad?

No. Attending a school for undergraduate work has little bearing on if you will be accepted as a graduate student there. Graduate admissions are another animal altogether, with different programs looking for different skills; some programs will value your real-life experience outside of academe as well as your undergraduate record. As long as you’re performing well in your discipline as an undergraduate, your choice of school won’t matter as much as your academics. And keep in mind that sometimes your pre-college conceptions of a future career may change – so pursue a school now that is rigorous in your area of interests, and leave the worrying about graduate admissions to three to five years down the road.

Will my stellar test scores replace my less-than-good grades?

No. Good test scores are always a welcome asset in your application portfolio. Yet test scores represent one-shot success, rather than ongoing hard work and dedication. Schools are more often inclined to view consistently good marks in challenging courses in a positive light than a test score that could, potentially, be a fluke. Schools are interested in students who can persist in trying to succeed rather than occasionally shining on a test or two. If you do have good test scores and less-than-ideal grades, seek to address this early and often in your application. Explain any extenuating circumstances including hardships, which might have affected your ongoing performance in school. And do your best to focus on studying for school more than studying for tests.

My parents can’t afford a school I really want to attend. Should I still apply in the hopes of being able to attend?

Yes. Definitely set your sights high when it comes to applying to schools – there are often ways to help students who demonstrate true financial need. Need-based financial aid, often determined by your parent’s income and the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), is far more common than merit-based aid (the kind you get for being particularly talented and accomplished in a subject area). Yet I also encourage students to apply to a school or two that may be more affordable in case financial aid doesn’t come through, or if you and your family decide that you’d rather keep to a less costly institution. Don’t forget that your education should be your #1 investment in life – after all, college will shape your future network, your skills and knowledge, your resume, and innumerable other facets of your life. Be considered and careful in evaluating costs – the sticker shock can be scary – but most colleges are able to help students find a way to make things work.