College Prep 101

    Choosing the right school is personal—and sometimes stressful. We offer tips on how to stand out in the admissions process.

    Jumpstart your planning

    Counselors, colleges and organizations like the National Association for College Admission Counseling emphasize that parents should start planning for college no later than middle school. Why so early? This timeline allows students to take the required courses they’ll need to get into college (and maybe even take classes for college credit), meet application deadlines, and research and apply for low-interest loans, scholarships, grants, and work-study programs.

    “We encourage students to begin thinking about post-secondary choices in middle school and when they’re freshmen, we help them create a plan that will chart their course in high school,” says Nancy Kracke, Eastern Carver County Schools (District 112) community relations director. “We help students select classes that meet college admission requirements and then offer even more depth for students who aim toward particular colleges.”

    District 112, serving the residents of Carver, Chanhassen, Chaska, and Victoria, also offers Project Lead the Way, an accredited pre-engineering program, and college classes authorized by Mankato State University.

    Making the grade

    A student’s Grade Point Average and standardized ACT or SAT scores are a clear indicator of academic ability and the easiest tools for admissions offices to compare students. According to The Princeton Review, the national average ACT score is between 20-21, and according to, the middle 50 percent of first-year college students scored between 27 and 32. The higher your score, the more options you have (and the better your odds at snagging scholarship dollars). Most colleges and universities post GPA and test score requirements on their websites.

    In order to help students prepare for college-level work, many area schools—such as Academy of Holy Angels, a co-educational, Catholic high school in Richfield and Minnehaha Academy, a pre-K – 12 Christian school with campuses in Minneapolis and Bloomington—offer a vast array of Advanced Placement courses. Taking AP courses helps students develop the knowledge, skills and abilities necessary for a successful transition to college. AP courses are generally demanding, and require a certain level of maturity and dedication.

    Hill-Murray, a Catholic school for grades 7-12, not only offers a variety of AP courses, it is the only metro area high school cited by ACT twice—in 2007 and 2009—for college-preparatory academic rigor “as a leader in preparing high school students for postsecondary education.” In addition, it is one of only 21 Minnesota high schools accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Beyond the core rigor in math, science, English, and social studies, Hill-Murray, based in Maplewood, has outstanding programs in fine arts, including an Artist-in-Residence program (giving students the opportunity to learn from a working artist) and award-winning theatre.

    Across town, Minnetonka also attracts the best and brightest. In the last few years, student achievement has soared in Minnetonka Public Schools, and Minnetonka now ranks among America’s Top High Schools (Newsweek magazine). A school-record 15 students were named National Merit Semifinalists, with 24 Commended students in 2008.

    Another factor in painting an overall picture of the applicant is a college essay. Admissions counselors suggest writing in a way that will allow them to get a general idea of your personality. The essay should showcase who you are. In order to prepare yourself for the essay—as well as the rigors of college coursework—Anthony Piscitiello, vice president of admissions at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, a college offering small classes, personal attention, and challenging academics on a beautiful 400-acre campus in Winona, has simple advice to high school students: “Before entering college, read and write … A LOT.”

    Keep in mind, though, that most institutions are interested in more than just statistics. “Members of the admissions committee are like employers—they look at the whole person, not just their academic credentials,” explains Kristin Janes, director of recruitment operations at Northwestern College, a private Christian liberal arts college in St. Paul. “Students who are actively engaged in their communities through leadership and service and who will enhance the student body are highly desirable candidates for admission.”



    Activities outside the classroom

    In middle and especially in high school, parents should encourage their kids to become involved in meaningful after-school, weekend, and vacation activities, particularly ones that tap into their interests or plans for the future.

    “The social and leadership experiences gained in cocurricular or extracurricular activities can be incredibly valuable during the college transition,” says Derek Hartl, direction of admission services at Luther College in Iowa. “Luther College looks for students who have committed themselves to college preparation, both in coursework and activity level. We value students who look for opportunities to enrich the lives of others, not just their own.”

    It is obvious—upon looking at the accomplishments of Breck School students in the 2009-10 school year—that students value extracurricular activities in addition to academia. Students at this Episcopal, coeducational, college-preparatory pre-K – grade 12 day school won the Minnesota State High School League’s Challenge Cup for success in athletics and extracurricular activities, the Mock Trial team won the national championship, every member of the Advanced Science Research class was invited to a national or international competition, and for the 13th consecutive year, projects from Breck went to national finals on National History Day.

    Visit, visit, visit

    When you decide which schools you’re interested in, go visit them! If possible, a campus visit is the best way to see which school most feels like “home.” Think about as many of the little things as possible. Eat in the cafeteria, walk through the residence halls, check out the bookstore, look in classrooms to see how professors interact with students, and examine the campus culture and activity level. These are the things that will eventually become primary factors in a your decision.

    “With all of the pressures of a busy life, some families find it difficult to make the time to visit, but the experiences and responses from families indicate that a campus visit is highly effective in helping students define their interests and college search priorities,” says Stacia Vogel, Gustavus Adolphus College assistant vice president of marketing and communication.

    Find your niche

    One of the most important elements of personal happiness is being passionate about your career and your job. Sometimes you realize those passions while in high school. For those who are passionate about the environment, the School of Environmental Studies—a public high school for juniors and seniors with a focus on nature, located in Apple Valley—is the perfect fit. Since it is adjacent to the Minnesota Zoo, a number of students work with zookeepers and scientific staff in unique field experiences. It is truly a connected learning environment.

    “We are a public high school dedicated to educating young adults to become thoughtful, engaged, environmentally-aware citizens,” explains Dan Bodette, principal.

    Three times a year SES offers short courses, similar to college J-term, where students study one subject in great depth or engage in off-campus field studies. Students are further prepared for college work, Bodette says, through long-term projects, professional and academic presentation portfolios, and the required Senior Capstone.

    At Northland College, located along Lake Superior in Ashland, Wis., an environmental mission is a part of every academic program, from business to biology to outdoor education.

    “Northland adopted its environmental mission in 1971, making it one of the first colleges or universities in the country to do so,” says Rick J. Smith, Northland College vice president of enrollment management. “We’re a small college, yet we’ve been getting a lot of national attention lately for the quality of our educational programs and our unique environmental commitment to the environment and sustainability.”

    When it comes to promoting global awareness, the International School of Minnesota is ahead of the curve, thanks to their world-renowned SABIS® Educational System. SABIS® offers students a carefully planned, sequential, and rigorous college-preparatory curriculum based on over 125 years of international “best practices.” This unique educational system tends to attract an extensive breadth and depth of students and families of different cultures, religions, languages, and perspectives.

    “ISM offers a high-quality, college-preparatory education that prepares our students for success in college, in life, and in the global economy of the future,” explains Sarah Bianucci, ISM director of admissions and marketing. “The SABIS Academic Monitoring System® allows the progress of every student to be continuously monitored, problem areas to be identified, and the most appropriate solution to be implemented.”

    At Dunwoody College of Technology, located in Minneapolis, students receive a hands-on education, learn real-world skills, and develop problem-solving abilities. Named one of the top technical schools in the United States, Dunwoody is committed to excellence in education and works to serve those preparing for and working in business and industry.

    Those who are more left-brained might find their niche at the College of Visual Arts in St. Paul, a private, accredited, four-year college of art and design offering a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in fine arts, graphic design, illustration, interdisciplinary design studies, and photography. The fine arts degree offers concentrations in drawing, painting, printmaking, and sculpture. The interdisciplinary design studies degree offers a concentration in fashion design.



    Popular Colleges in the Area

    Here are a few reasons why students are attending the following schools:

    Luther College: Incredibly strong community atmosphere, over 130 different campus organizations and activities, strong athletics and music programs. More than 60 majors, minors, preprofessional programs and courses leading to a BA.

    Gustavus Adolphus College: Fully accredited and known for strong music, science, writing, athletics, study-abroad, and service-learning programs. Gustavus hosts a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and is internationally recognized for its annual Nobel Conference.

    Northwestern College: 55 bachelor’s degrees, including a cooperative dual-degree program with the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology, where students complete three years of study (on average) at Northwestern in either applied mathematics or engineering sciences then transfer to the U of M to complete the requirements for a focused engineering degree. The only non-denominational Christian private college in the state.

    University of Minnesota–Duluth: A beautiful campus setting on the shore of Lake Superior. A national leader in—with an unusually high level of funding for—undergraduate research. For those who don’t want to brave the elements on below-zero days, the campus buildings are almost completely connected by indoor concourses.

    University of St. Thomas: Undergrads can choose from more than 90 undergraduate majors and more than 50 minors; grad students can choose from 48 degree programs—43 master’s, two education specialist, one juris doctor, and four doctorates. Four primary campuses in St. Paul, Minneapolis, Owatonna, and Italy. The largest private university in Minnesota.

    Saint Mary’s Schools of Graduate and Professional Programs: Main focus on the adult learner. Areas of study include Saint Mary’s Graduate School of Education, Graduate School of Health and Human Services, and Graduate School of Business and Technology. The School of Professional Programs offers Bachelor of Science completion programs, giving students the opportunity to take the valuable life experiences they have and apply them as part of the degree credits. 

    Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota (Winona campus): Undergraduate college + advanced degrees. Curriculum combines traditional liberal arts and sciences with career preparation in a student centered environment. Full spectrum of student organizations and activities, along with student government, campus ministry, and community volunteer programs. Several innovative, flexible graduate and professional programs.

    DeVry University’s Keller Graduate School of Management: Courses offered in Edina, St. Louis Park, or online (students can mix and match to fit their schedule). Approach to the MBA degree program takes into account the real-world application of educational wisdom, not just ivory tower theories.