Mapping a Path to College Admission

Mapping a Path to College Admission

My wife and I celebrated getting our oldest child into kindergarten in September. After more than 100 hours of researching schools, touring campuses, speaking with parents, perusing message boards and online forums, creating Top 10 lists, filling out applications, and grinding our teeth when we slept, we dropped our 5-year-old daughter off for her first day of school.

At one point during the process, I turned to my wife and moaned, “I didn’t work this hard to get into college.”

That’s true. Maybe the early 1990s were simpler times, but I applied to a few in-state colleges after visiting their campuses and waited for my acceptance letters. I relied on my grades and test scores to pave my way to admission. If this was our experience placing our daughter in kindergarten, what inhumane gauntlet awaited when we got to college admission? The thought of navigating that hellscape prompted me to start grinding my teeth again.

Luckily, my mother-in-law, Teresa, is a college counselor and she talked me down by offering the following pointers.

Start early

The trailhead to college begins in middle school. This is the time when the academic forks in the road begin to pop up. A combination of test results and grades will provide opportunities for top-performing students to take advanced mathematics, science and foreign language classes. Completing these foundational classes allows students to take additional high-level courses when they reach high school, improving their attractiveness during college application.

In addition to academic considerations, grades 6 through 8 are important years to begin community service, leadership training or other extracurricular involvement. Most college and scholarship applications ask for depth of community service and leadership experience in high school. While participation in organized programs like Academy for Young Leaders, Junior Achievement or Boys State certainly carries weight with college admission boards, the truth is most candidates will have similar experiences noted on their applications. To stand out, it’s helpful to have student-led activities. For instance, Teresa shared the story of a gifted student who voluntarily organized tutoring for other students preparing for the SATs.

Of course, this level of achievement cannot be expected from middle school students. However, it’s a good time to start talking with your kids about service and how they’d like to get involved in their community. Many families begin by volunteering at shelters and food banks during the holidays, at local churches and community centers, or at local parks and neighborhood gardens. Let’s not forget about specialized programs like sports, theater, music and writing. It doesn’t matter so much how much time they spend or who they serve, the real benefit is starting a dialogue with your kids and exploring how they want to make an impact.


With top-tier colleges accepting between 4% to 12% of applicants, it almost goes without saying that grades matter. And when you consider that most colleges allocate 10 to 15 minutes to their initial application review, it only makes sense that grades and test scores are the gatekeepers to further consideration. In addition to grades, curriculum deserves heavy weighting when discussing grade point average. A student earning As and Bs in Advanced Placement classes will receive higher consideration than a college prep student earning straight As. Your child should be focused on taking the most rigorous academic courses their school offers, as long as they can complete them successfully.

But grades alone won’t clear the path to your child’s top choice. While it might seem unfair that a roughly three-hour test carries as much weight as four years of academic achievement, test scores should be considered the next biggest focus to college entry. The road to the best final test results begins during the freshman year. Studies have shown that students who become familiar with the test mechanics perform better overall. Private tutors or prep courses can help boost subject areas that students tested poorly in. In other words, repeat testing bears fruit. Therefore, most counselors recommend taking a practice exam (PSAT or Pre-ACT) during freshman, sophomore and junior years. Then, in spring of their junior year, your child should transition to the standard ACT or SAT test. Teresa recommends that students limit themselves to three test attempts. Further testing rarely results in better test scores.

So which test should your child take — ACT or SAT? In general, either one is fine. Some students continue to take both, and Princeton University has stated (via Tweet) that having both test scores provides the admissions board with more information, which benefits applicants. Ultimately, do what’s best for your child. The amount of stress and pressure put on kids to perform academically is becoming a serious concern for parents, so keep that in mind when determining a testing strategy.

One last thing to consider: Have your child take the fall semester PSAT during their junior year. The results from this test can qualify your child for National Merit Scholarships valued at $2,500.

Personal development

Colleges are in the business of developing people, not high-performing automatons. Admission boards aim to recruit students who will make their school better. After all, these students will be wearing the school brand long after they graduate. It’s important that they represent the academic aspirations, personal values and service to community inherent in that school’s culture. Therefore, understanding who your child is as a person can be just as important as how they perform academically. Look no further than David Hogg, Parkland shooting survivor turned social activist, who was accepted into Harvard with a 1270 SAT score. The average score for the bottom 25% admitted to Harvard is 1460.

As your child develops and cultivates their sense of self, focus on how your child gets involved more than what they get involved in. Athletics can build leadership and communication skills as well as good sportsmanship and emotional maturity. But so can volunteering, mentoring, community organization, leadership programs, and after-school jobs. What inspires your child? Allow them to follow their interests while acquiring awards, merits, experience, life skills, and maybe a little spending money along the way. Having meaningful experiences throughout middle and high school provide the critical basis of required personal statements in college applications.

One last comment before moving on. The expectations placed on kids today to get good grades, test well, excel in sports, play musical instruments, be funny, fit in, look cool, fall in love, and get enough sleep are exhausting and overwhelming for anyone. Social media placing your child under the microscope and recording their lives to infinity doesn’t help. Kids need to recognize when they’re burned out, stressed, anxious and overwhelmed, and learn skills to deal with these feelings. It’s our job to help them navigate these turbulent times and turn down the volume when the noise becomes too much.

Choosing a college

There are so many variables when choosing a school. By far, the most important factor when considering where to apply is fit. Does the university offer the academic, social and personal merits needed for your child to thrive and succeed? Often students only consider the most prestigious campuses, yet there are many lesser-known, outstanding colleges that could be the best fit.

In determining fit, we recommend starting your search with geography before branching out into more complicated questions like classroom size, affordability, program strength, school culture or even athletics. Learn more about in-state schools to determine if any would be good fits for your child’s personality, aptitude and career goals. Research the schools online, visit them and talk with recruiters to learn more and get a feel for the community. As you talk and visit with more schools, the process will naturally demystify itself and the litany of questions will begin to answer themselves.

As you gain clarity and develop a roster of schools that are matches for your child, you can begin to map out an application strategy. Most college counselors recommend students to apply to eight to 12 schools. They should include safety schools (likely acceptance), target schools (high percentage of acceptance, but no guarantees), and reach schools (the Hail Mary schools). Try to identify your top picks in your child’s junior year because early-decision, early-option and scholarship applications for some schools are due as early as October or November of senior year.

Also, don’t downplay the pathway through junior college. It’s a terrific option for students who are still exploring their major, need to stay close to home, want to reduce expenses, or just need a little more runway before they are college-ready. Some states offer easy access for JC students to enter public state universities.

Financing it

The financial aid process begins with filing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) which is used to determine the family’s ability to contribute based on prior income. Parents can fill out the FAFSA from October 1 through March of the senior year. Learn more at the FAFSA website.

Even if you know you won’t qualify for need-based aid, applying is still recommended for two reasons:

1. Anyone who applies is entitled to a loan
2. Applying gives your child access to merit-based scholarships

Some private colleges also require families to fill out the CSS Profile, available through the CollegeBoard.

Students who do not qualify for federal financial aid should work with their college counselor to explore scholarship opportunities. Students who have built a strong profile — combining grades, test scores, leadership and community service — are typically most eligible to receive scholarships. Consult individual college websites to learn their required qualifications.

A great tool to determine cost and eligibility for merit awards is the CollegeBoard’s Net Price Calculator. It will give you a close estimate for actual costs to attend.

Of course, grandparents and other relatives may want to contribute to the family prodigy’s higher education, too. Be aware of how large gifts can affect financial aid and taxes, and consult your financial advisor if necessary.

Expert advice

Raising kids is hard and time-intensive enough. The truth is most parents would benefit from a base level of guidance on the admissions process. Although some private schools offer one-on-one college counseling for students, most public schools do not. Similar to a financial advisor, a successful college counselor helps provide clarity and peace of mind throughout the application process.

After discovery meetings where they’ll learn your child’s goals, interests and perspective, they help design a plan to identify schools, navigate admissions tests, strengthen personal statements, schedule delivery deadlines and review applications. Counselors can also bring tremendous value by becoming sounding boards for parents and students. And having an expert who knows the nuances of the process and individual schools can help you cut a clear path to your child’s target destination. To get the most benefit, partner with a counselor no later than your child’s junior year, when the admissions countdown kicks off.

While it’s not inexpensive, when you consider the overall cost of college, hiring a private counselor may provide a rewarding return on investment.

Timeline for College Prep

Here’s a breakdown of when to take important steps in the college admission process:

Middle SchoolFreshmanSummerSophomoreJuniorSummerSenior
Take foundational classes to maximize access to advanced high school classes.Start building resume, list of honors, etc.End-of-year GPA used for college application.End-of-year GPA used for some college applications (e.g. UC and CSU).Take SAT and ACT in fall.
Discover your passion. Find a need and fill it.Meet high school college counselor, if available. Consider engaging private counselor.Latest you’d want to hire a college counselor.Develop personal statement.FAFSA applications due by March.
Start community service and volunteering.Attend college night.Start visiting college campuses.Intensive research to narrow college list. Visit campuses.CSS profile for private universities due as early as October.
Begin participating in leadership programs.Map out high school activities.Develop summer activities.Develop leadership role in high school activities.Take SAT and ACT in April, June and/or July.College applications due as early as November (UC and CSU, early decision, early option).
Take PSAT.Take PSAT.Take PSAT in fall for national merit scholarship qualification.Scholarship consideration for some schools begins.