Tag Archives: High school

Q&A: Our daughter’s a freshman. Should we be concerned about her grades?

A friend and parent of a high school freshman just asked:QandA block

Q.  You know our daughter; she’s very interested in athletics, and not so much in academics. She does okay, but I’m wondering:  should we be concerned about her grades this year?

A.  Ahhh. That’s a question each family has to answer for itself, since the level of concern that one might have (I won’t take on “should”) depends upon so many factors, such as:

  • How much time does she spend on schoolwork compared to her peers?
  • How stressed does she get now about her schoolwork?
  • How do her grades compare to what you think she’s capable of achieving?
  • What sort of colleges do you hope she could attend?

Then you might consider this, which seems obvious now, but we still had to learn by going through it with our first child:

While we talk about the elements of the student’s high school record–course selections, grade point average (GPA), and extracurriculars–that go into a college application, the application process is timed so we’re really talking about a high school record of the first three years.

"The Freshman"

“The Freshman”

Most seniors submit their applications anywhere from mid-October for an early admission application to the end of December for a regular admission application. The transcript will, in most cases, indicate course selections and a GPA through the end of junior year. The student’s extracurriculars could include the first part of senior year, but any opportunity to demonstrate strong areas of interest and leadership would require taking action in earlier years.

Guidance counselors will try to help students understand the importance of their grades and increased rigor in course selections from year to year.

It can be hard, though, for a freshman or sophomore to take this as seriously as the parents might (or as the parents might want her to).

I wrote recently about a UVa admissions counselor visiting our high school. (See Straight talk from a UVa admissions counselor:  everything’s important.) After that session, one of the attending parents complained at length to the guidance counselors that they didn’t require all students to come listen to the admissions counselor. The counselors responded that none of the information was different from that they shared with students when planning course selections every year. The parent insisted that students would pay more attention to the UVa representative than they would to the high school counselors and, certainly, to their own parents.

That may well be. I have no idea what works in other households; I barely know what works with our own teens. When we were trying to get their attention–talking about courses, grades, or extracurriculars–we tended to (and still do) talk about doing the best they could to keep as many options available to them as possible, whether that’s access to college or an internship or a job.

Good luck!

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Straight talk from a UVa admissions officer: everything’s important.

English: The Rotunda, the central historic str...

The Rotunda, the central historic structure on the campus of The University of Virginia (Photo: Wikipedia)

A couple of weeks ago our high school offered a college planning night. One of the most popular sessions featured an admissions officer from the University of Virginia. We live near UVa and a lot of families are interested in the school.*

Ms. Admissions introduced herself as a neighbor; her children live in our district and will attend our high school. She also identifies more with the parent now than with the student when reading applications. That sympathetic stance–she’s one of us–helped shape her explanations of UVa’s perspective into something that sounded gentler than it will be for thousands of students. In 2012-2013 28,984 students applied, and 8,691 received offers of admission.

From my notes:

Selective admissions. The process is not about determining who is qualified and who is not, and letting in the qualified. That’s not the way it works. Selective admissions means we have more qualified applicants than we can admit. Who amongst the qualified applicants will we let into our university.

Every app is read by at least two; if I pulled up records from this high school last year, some of them will have been read by eight reviewers.

We look at the record. Where are you from? Did your parents go to college? Then I look at the transcript:  it is and always will be the most important part of the application.

When we look at the transcript, it will be with the school profile pulled up next to it, general info about the school. I look at what courses are available to the student. It’s not just about the grades, it’s about the rigor. It’s about the student taking what we consider the most rigorous courses.

Junior year is a very important year. If there’s a year to push that is it. It’s the last year for which I will see the full transcript for the year before the decision. The courses and grades matter probably more than any other year.

When I look at the transcript, I am looking for a trend. By junior year we want to see you hitting your stride. We’re going to take a close look at your courses and your grades. We want students at UVa who will really embrace the rigor of the academic opportunities.

One errant grade, we can overlook. If it becomes consistent, that will be a bit more of a problem.

We want to see a continued trend in academic work. We don’t want to see you step back from rigor.

On class rank, we consider whatever the school provides. We evaluate what we are given and the student is not penalized for what the school provides. We’re seeing less and less class rank nationally, a real trend. At strong high performing schools, the rank can be misleading. A student can be getting all As on top classes, and be ranked 125th class rank.

Grades and program are the most important thing. Transcript is king.

Qualitative measures are also important: Very rarely do people ask what type of student are we looking for. Character, integrity, honor, passionate, intellectuals, interested in community service, friendly, funny. Personal qualities matter.

Letters of recommendation give me a sense of the qualitative aspects. Teacher recs are a very underrated part of the process. Who taught the class where you showed the most growth, depth of thought, contributed the most, helped other students who were struggling?

Extra-curriculars are important in the same way. I’m looking for impact and contribution. If it’s not evident what you contributed, tell us. Write a phrase about what you did:  Coordinated, contributed, initiated — that’s what matters. It’s not about the laundry list of activities in which you’ve been moderately involved. It’s about the activities in which you were really involved, in which you made a difference.

The essay is also a really important aspect. Probably a little more so at UVa. We all read the essay. This is the chance for the student to have a captive audience with your admissions counselor. It’s one of my favorite aspects.

We will also look at test scores. The test is important, but never as important as the transcript. What you do every day in school is always more important than one test one morning, but the scores will be noticed.

Well, then. What isn’t important to a selective school?

Our household is in the midst of application season, with essays in flux, test scores being submitted, and early applications in the works. So what if it’s also homecoming week. Hope all is going smoothly for the seniors (and their families) out there! And for the juniors:  remember, yours is a very important year.

* I write about UVa a lot because of the proximity; UVa Dean J, through Twitter and Notes from Peabody, provides great information on the admission schedules and processes; and our oldest child, Mod Squad Pete, is a second year student there.

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Essays, smack-talking siblings and a big college deadline

We are parents of a high school senior and we are in the midst of college application season.

Our oldest child worked his way through applications two years ago, acquainting us with the rhythms of deadlines and the components of transcripts, tests, essays, and recommendations.

Yet, even within one household, each student’s specific experience—in college prep coursework, activities, and his or her approach to the application itself—makes this process as singular as the student.

My husband describes the application process as complex project management. The student bears the responsibility for the content of the application; we can teach project management and help make sure not a single element of the project gets missed.

Our current senior, Mod Squad Julie, is already a skilled project manager who needs little more from us than an occasional schedule check. I may be able to help with some details, but Julie has an extraordinarily good handle on reality, what she wants to do, and what it takes to get there. Near the top of her task list now:  completing drafts of essays.

Seeing the student for who she is. Here’s where we think we can help Julie—and it’s not writing essays for her. There are two points to college essays:

  1. To see if the student can actually write at the level required by the college; and
  2. To help the college gain the best understanding they can of what each student is like.

Admissions officers will see so many similar numbers—on GPAs, SATs, SAT subject tests, APs. Well-crafted recommendations, extracurriculars, and interviews can help provide a more complete perspective of the student. Essays, though, are the student’s primary opportunity to include his or her own voice in the application package, and that “voice”—which can encompass writing style, turns of phrase, vocabulary, and philosophy, as well as choice of topic—can (and should) be as unique as the student.

Those essays can be tough to write well. Besides trying to show who they are without telling, many high school seniors mature rapidly through the year and are still trying to figure out who they are for themselves. It’s also tough on parents:  we want the best chances for our children, so there’s a strong temptation to push to make sure the essays put them in the best possible light. Yet putting every student in the best possible light defeats the purpose.

We are trying to help Julie see the young woman we see. We’re not about to tell her what to write, but we can describe to her the seventeen-year-old we know. We can remind her of how the present Julie connects to who she has been all of her life. Sometimes these conversations strike a chord; it’s very cool when her eyes light up as she thinks of a way she could write about herself that is true, genuine, and important to her self-identity. Even when our long-ranging talks don’t lead to inspiration for an essay, they provide us with something we absolutely cherish:  time with our daughter.

Missing the girl already. Here’s the biggest thing about having gone through this before. During our son’s senior year we anticipated his leaving with a parental mixture of trepidation (for us) and joy (for him). His excitement helped overcome our dismay… until he left and we missed him dreadfully. It doesn’t matter much that he lives seven miles away and we can see him often. We miss the impromptu piano recitals, the booming music heard through the walls when the car pulls into the garage, the gallons of milk that disappear, and the crazy smack-talk among three teen siblings.

College move in day

August 2012, helping the first one move to college.

We know now in a way we didn’t before—it’s seared into our hearts—that Julie will leave. We won’t have her presence in our daily lives: Julie’s insistence on “real meals” and a wide variety of fresh fruits, her sprawled out books and notes in at least four rooms of the house, her dry humor catching us unawares, girlfriend-movie-nights, basketball games, quick flashes of an almost-grown young woman. She will keep in touch, but she won’t be here.

Our relative composure about how Julie handles deadlines disappears when we think about the one with the biggest impact: eleven months from now she’ll go to college.

We accept that it’s our job to help her leave. We just will not pretend to like it.

This post appeared in slightly different form on True Admissions, the blog of College Admission: From Application To Acceptance.

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Fluffy Credits, or how do I get my kid into the top 10 percent?

A friend and parent of a high-school freshman recently wrote:

Q.  I have a question for you regarding high school academics and the college search. We were having dinner with friends last night (one kid @ McGill, one on his way to Johns Hopkins, and one in high school) and mentioned that G. is taking health and PE this summer in order to get them out of the way. They told us that some uber-reaching students will actually hold off on taking health until senior year because they’re trying to game the system a bit and make sure that they don’t have any “fluffy credits” on their transcripts when they’re applying to colleges.

Have you heard of this and what do you think about it?

A.  Heh. Fluffy credits. What a great term.QandA block

I’m a bit agog at the thought of seniors taking 9th grade health, but I’m sure it happens. This is all to do with weighted course credits, as in when Honors and AP courses earn five points for an A on a four point scale.

A student earning straight As through high school, and taking a larger number of  non-weighted classes, such as arts electives, PE, band, etc., can end up with a lower weighted GPA than a student who maxed-out the weighted classes. That straight-A student will have earned an unweighted 4.0 GPA, but here’s the reason those uber-reaching students are putting off [non-weighted] health until senior year:  class rank is based upon the weighted GPA.

First, though, more about the GPAs. You’ve likely seen  @UVADeanJ’s tweets during reading season–she and her colleagues across the country run into true weirdness, like an applicant with a 12.31 GPA.

@UVADeanJ tweet@UVADeanJ tweetThis is why the school profile is so important for the colleges–they get the context of the GPA  and how each school weights grades (or not) from the profile. I’ve been told by a reliable source that UVa recalculates all of the GPAs for its applicants, to build comparables (and that a local high school math teacher has the part-time job to help with this).

August 28, 2013 Letter to the Editor, Charlottesville Daily Progress

“Albemarle shouldn’t rank students,” August 28, 2013, Charlottesville Daily Progress. Click to enlarge.

Whether that’s true or not, many colleges look for where that student’s GPA stands in comparison to his or her peers:  the class rank.

Why the class rank matters. A top class rank is crucial for those uber-reaching students you mentioned, the ones trying to get into very selective schools. At UVA, for example, 93 percent of the incoming class was in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and 98 percent were in the top 25 percent (or quartile).

See Frederick Smyth’s recent letter to the editor encouraging Albemarle schools to stop reporting class ranks because of the import colleges place on this arbitrary cut-off.

“Rankings are crude attempts to simplify complex academic records and often create impressions of meaningful differences between students when none exist.”

. . .

“Being in the top 10 percent is no guarantee of admission… but a lesser label, such as being in the second-highest 10 percent, nearly guarantees rejection.”

Most high schools don’t publicize a class rank of graduating seniors, as in listing the students in order by GPA. Instead, they determine where the GPA cut-off is for the top 10 percent (or decile), the top quarter (or quartile), the top half, etc. Which of those categories the student meets does get reported to colleges, at least in our school system.

Here’s what our counselor told us during Mod Squad Pete’s junior year:  you cannot tell ahead of time where the top 10 percent GPA cutoff will be for any given class, because that will be computed only at the very end of the senior year.

What she could tell us was where the top decile and quartile cutoffs were for the previous year’s class and, if Pete had been part of that class, where his GPA would have positioned him. (This also provided some much-needed incentive to maintain his senior year grades.)

Here, from our high school’s website,  are screenshots from the school’s profile, from three different years. A weighted 4.50 GPA sounds really good, but in 2010 a student with that GPA would not have made the top decile. In 2008 a weighted GPA of 4.010 made the top quartile, but not in the other two example years.

Class Rank based on weighted GPA

Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.37.15 PM Screen Shot 2013-09-08 at 9.38.23 PM

That’s a long-winded explanation of fluffy credits and why some students put them off until senior year. I’ll get to what I think of all this next time around. Thanks for the great question!

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First day of senior year: she looks forward. Me, not just yet.

Our school begins today. Writing this the night before, I feel confident predicting that we will be rushed, packing lunches, eating breakfast (or carrying it to the car), feeding the dog and bird, gathering school supplies, pausing for a quick photo, and dashing out the door.

And since we’ve been to this rodeo before, I feel confident predicting that’s the way Mod Squad Julie’s senior year will go, too:  dashing from Back-to-School night to Spirit Week, submitting early applications, basketball practices and games, submitting regular applications, midterms, receiving college decisions, making her own decision, AP exam weeks, and graduation. Just like that.

first day of school

The Mod Squad’s first day of school, a few years ago.

This is when I stop dashing for a moment to look backwards…

Back to a full year during preschool when Julie proudly added an “h” to her [real] name, because she liked the letter so much.

Back to watching Julie and her fast-speaking, ever-smiling girlfriends ice skate in French immersion elementary school.

Back to an infamous middle school science project, when she ran out of things to say about Mme. Curie, so she transformed it into an art project spelling out radium in a variety of languages.

Back to her first days in a high school of 1100 students after an eighth grade class of fifteen, when she wondered how M.S. Pete (a junior then) knew so many people.

Back to now, when she’s excited about senior year and looking ahead to next year when, as Michael Gerson puts it, her life will be “starting for real.”

We’ve watched Julie mature from a quiet freshman to a strong, confident young woman. She scheduled her senior year so it serves as both a capstone to high school and a half step toward college. She’ll have a heavy course load, yet more free time than ever, excellent training for a college schedule next year.

For now, though, as we head into this first day, I wish her a great, safe, fun senior year. I hope we can all appreciate every moment of it.

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What Happens When? The College Admissions Calendar, expanded.

I published a College Admissions Calendar in early May and asked for suggestions of any missed items. Here’s the calendar, updated with suggestions [credited below]. I’ve added a couple of notes at the end for recommended parent-student discussions. Those are always fun.

For college admissions May 1st marks the New Year — the end of one college admissions year and the beginning of the next. This is a great time to look at what happens throughout the year for anyone on a path toward college.

College teeMay

  • May 1 is the deadline for students to accept an offer from, and pay a deposit to, the college of their choice. Most, but not all colleges, that is. Here’s why (and no, it’s not for the benefit of the students): Random thoughts on May 1.
  • First two full weeks of May:  AP exams. All HS students taking AP courses take the exams at the same time.
  • First three weeks of May:  IB exams. All HS students taking IB courses take the exams at the same time. More information via the International Baccalaureate website, here.
  • SAT & SAT Subject tests (aka SAT IIs) offered. Typically SATs are offered every month except April, July, August, and September. SAT Subject tests are offered every time SATs are offered except March, but not all subjects are offered each time. Specific details on APs, SATS, and SAT Subject tests can be found at the College Board’s website, Big Future.
  • Parents and college counselors urge HS juniors to request recommendation letters from teachers before school lets out. (Note: typically teachers write the letters in the fall and upload them to the Common App interface after the student has specified his or her colleges. However, many teachers appreciate the advance notice and the opportunity to prep for the letters during the summer.)
  • Also, before school lets out, rising seniors should find out how to get a transcript sent from the school during the summer. Some colleges will offer targeted students incentives, such as recommendation waivers, application fee waivers or even small scholarship offers, if they get the completed application to the college in early September.


  • ACT tests are offered in June, September, October, December, February, and April. Specific details can be found at the ACT website.
  • Orientation for new college students begins, this usually includes help with registration. Parents are usually invited and are offered their own orientation track.
  • Parents of HS students may want to visit campuses while on summer road-trips.


  • The summer before senior year brings opening day for coach/athlete communications. This NCAA pdf provides a calendar for 2012-13.  Athletic recruitment adds an algorithmic level of complexity.
  • AP scores are sent to exam-takers; exams are scored on a scale of 1 [low] to 5; 3 is considered a passing score. The more selective the college, the higher score required for credit. Some colleges do not provide credit, but may use the scores for placement. See college websites for each college’s AP credit policy. Here’s what UVa accepts in the College of Arts & Sciences.
  • Parents and college counselors urge rising seniors to start drafting essays. Some students do. Read: How to Write a College Essay (in 10 Steps).
  • Another summer task for rising seniors:  investigate scholarship opportunities since many have fall or early winter deadlines. From a HS counselor, “This should start even in middle school. … It is NEVER too early to start searching for scholarships.”


  • The Common App goes live for the new application season. Some students actually apply in August. (Nobody I know.) Bookmark this site:  Common Questions for the Common App.
  • For new college students:  first tuition payment is required!


  • Many HS guidance counselors provide detailed information to seniors, including how much time is required for transcript requests, recommendation letters, etc.
  • Many HS guidance counselors will also provide guidelines on scholarship applications.
  • Freshmen, sophomores and juniors may want to start thinking about community service opportunities, if they haven’t already. Many honor societies and scholarships require service time.
  • Seniors should consider college visits. Many colleges have autumn visit days and may offer overnight stays.


  • Earliest Early Admission and Early Decision deadlines occur. (Note: the 2012-13 Common App listed October 30 as the earliest application deadline. However, many college counselors will advise students to submit at least two weeks prior to the published deadline.)
  • Many high schools offer PSAT/NMSQTs to sophomores (mostly for practice) and juniors (for National Merit Scholarship qualification).
  • The October SAT date is typically the latest that will get scores reported to colleges for Early deadlines.
  • Parents need to check financial aid requirements for early applications. Some will require an application in the fall. The CSS Financial Aid Profile, via College Board and required by most private universities, goes live October 1 for the following school year.


  • Early application reading season for admissions, extends into January.
  • Early applicants should prepare for the possibility of college interviews, either with admission officers or local alumni.
  • Parents and college counselors may urge seniors to finish essays over Thanksgiving break. Some students do.


  • The December SAT date is typically the latest that will get scores reported for regular deadlines.
  • Early decisions start to be received in December. Some HS students face rejection for the first time. (Deal with it and move on.)
  • Important:  many college decisions will be provided via the college’s SIS, requiring the student to log-in. Keep a file of the log-in IDs used for different colleges.
  • Important:  now is when HS seniors need to check email regularly. See Calling All Texters: Read Your Email!
  • December 31 is the deadline for the majority of regular admission applications.


  • The new FAFSA goes live January 1st. Some families actually submit that day. (Nobody I know.) Read: Catch-22: How and When to Complete the FAFSA and Your Tax Returns.
  • Regular application reading season for admissions officers, extends through March.
  • Regular season applicants should prepare for the possibility of college interviews, either with admission officers or local alumni.
  • Sophomores and juniors receive PSAT scores. Approximately three hours later they start to receive emails and marketing mailers from colleges.
  • HS course registration may begin for the next school year.
  • Summer enrichment opportunities often require applications by January or February. See a very long list our local school division provides here.


  • Many colleges require the FAFSA submission by the end of February. Parents need to prepare preliminary, or draft, tax returns in order to submit the FAFSA. Bookmark this site: FAFSA FAQs.


  • Regular admission decisions should be received by the end of March.
  • Once parents file finished tax returns, they must update the FAFSA and/or link it to the return via the FAFSA/IRS interface.


  • HS juniors may want to spend their spring break visiting campuses. Setting up appointments with professors can help them learn more about each school. Read: Sending emails to strangers. At colleges. Asking for appointments.
  • HS seniors may want to attend admitted day programs for specific questions, to help aid their final decisions. Read: Who should attend an admitted student event?
  • Many communities hold college fairs, bringing a large number of campus reps to one location.
  • Financial aid letters, in all their confusing glory, may be received through the month of April.
  • HS juniors who have qualified for National Merit recognition are notified.
  • Last two weeks of April:  many HS students put life on hold to prep for AP exams in early May. Except for Prom, spring sports, part-time jobs, and, like, hanging out with friends.
  • Last two weeks of April:  many HS senior families square up to the college decision.

Important discussions for families about the college list: 

  1. Finances. Each family will make their own decisions on this. My recommendation: have a frank and open discussion early on–at least by spring of junior year–about how finances may impact college decisions, so the student and the parents are on the same track. Families with substantial resources for college may still balk at paying a quarter of a million dollars for an undergraduate degree. Other families may be adamant about limiting student debt. Still, others may happily pay full freight (and the colleges would like to know who you are!). Does your child know what you are willing to pay? Have both parents discussed this yet? Opinions may vary widely, especially if the parents had very different experiences paying for their own college costs.
  2. Career Services. How good is each college at providing career services and providing them early on? As Patricia Krahnke, President of Global College Search suggested, “One thing that might be interesting to add is analyzing and comparing degree program curricula and career services/academic advising for each college choice. … We find that this is an area families avoid, often because they haven’t a clue about how to do it. But it can go a very long way towards making the application process, essay writing, and interview prep process less confusing and the college choices more confident and realistic.”

Additions made with thanks to Patricia L. Krahnke, Bob Gilvey, Whitney Castillo, Christel Milak-Parker, Anne Lepesant, J B Jones, Shayne Swift, and Chuck Self.

What did I miss? Write in comments below. Thanks!

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This just in: summer vacation!

Yesterday was the final day of school for the local school district, but the summer break launched in stages for our household.

Mod Squad Pete’s first year of college ended May 10th. He came home for a night, then headed off to South Carolina for Beach Week with friends from school.

South Carolina

South Carolina

M.S. Linc graduated from middle school at the end of May. Four days later he traveled solo to visit family in the Midwest.

The farm

The farm

M.S. Julie completed her junior year on June 6th and left for the North Carolina beaches the following day.

North Carolina

North Carolina

All that to say:  happy summer! Turn up the volume! (We’ll deal with reading requirements, internships, camps, and application essays soon enough. Next week, right, Julie?)

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