A Is for Admission: The Insider's Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges
By Michele A. Hernandez
Middle School/Junior High
As parents, if you know your children are able to handle the challenge and the teachers agree, select all available honors-track courses when they are offered. That way, by the time your children enter high school, they will be taking the most advanced courses. Especially in high schools that weight grades (that is, assign added point value to advanced-level classes), students will not be competitive unless they are taking a challenging course load. In this respect, students are judged relative to the norm in their high school. If at high school X, most of the top students take five Advanced Placement classes, students will not be seen as competitive if they take only three such classes, even if they have higher grades than the person taking a more demanding schedule of classes. There are some high schools that count all their course work as honors and therefore limit the number of APs a student can take. So, at that particular high school, three APs might be the limit. It is the college counselor's job to fill in the appropriate box under "Strength of course load" ("Most demanding"; "Very demanding"; "Demanding"; "Average"; "Below average") correctly.
Sometimes the admissions officers know a high school so well that they can add to the college counselor's assessment through careful examination of a high school record. Many highly competitive colleges keep files or notebooks on high schools. Georgetown, for example, has its officers write an extensive report on every high school they visit, complete with notes about grading systems, representative course loads, where students typically attend college, and any other material that would help them to evaluate students from that high school. They even keep track of which students have been accepted over the past few years and what their class rank and/or GPA was. In eases like these, an informed officer might know that the joint English/art double-period class at a certain high school is actually much harder than AP English, or that AP physics has a much harder teacher than AP biology. Remember that admissions officers are each assigned regions-a collection of states or areas around the country-and are expected to read about and visit these areas. For example, my region for three or four years included all the schools in Westchester and Rockland counties in New York, as well as schools in Ohio, Florida, Indiana, and some other areas, so I had a chance to get to know the schools in those areas well. Many of the old guard who have been in admissions for a while will not only be familiar with the subtleties of specific course loads but will also know who the strongest teachers are and what their recommendations are like.
I will talk more specifically in chapter 9 about how to present yourself and your strengths, but for now, I will discuss some basics so you know exactly when you need to do what. One of the most important things you need to do in the eighth or ninth grade is to take a challenging course load while at the same time pursuing your academic interests. When you get to high school, you don't want to get off to a slow start academically. If you are taking all honors classes and start out in ninth grade not working up to potential, you will not be noticed by teachers and you might be dropped into a less competitive track. While admissions officers definitely look for grade trends (that is, if you had a weak ninth-grade year but achieved all /A's after that), you don't want to dig yourself a hole you can't climb out of. To top it off, if you start by getting C's in honors classes, teachers won't be that impressed by you, and if you have the same teachers or their colleagues in later years, your reputation might proceed you.
There is no doubt that teachers talk among themselves, especially about extreme cases-that is, their worst and best students. You want to be in the latter category so that teachers in the upper grades will look forward to having you in their classes. Though grading aims to be objective, if teachers have heard from their colleagues how brilliant you are, they are going to be predisposed to recognize your talents early on. In a sense, your academic strength and the impression you make on teachers during your early years of high school can have a huge impact on how you do academically in your later years and on the respect accorded to you by faculty.
What If You Are The Shy, Quiet Type?
If you know you are extremely shy and are hesitant to speak up in class, you need to confront this problem early on. It wouldn't be a bad idea to take a speech class or elect an activity like debating so you can learn how to present oral arguments in front of a crowd. I have read hundreds of essays about how students overcame their natural shyness through debating or other kinds of leadership positions, and I am convinced that this kind of activity helps. The problem is that if you are a straight A student, teachers will not praise you as much if you are very quiet, because you might not add much to class discussions. In fact, one of the boxes on the teacher recommendation form is "Effective participation in class," and if your teacher checks off "Rarely participates," you run the risk of having admissions officers say, "Well, if he rarely participates in his high school classes, what will he add to his college classes?"