College Prep 101

    Going to college—for many high school students—is a no-brainer.

    College students have opportunities to grow personally, intellectually, and professionally, and college graduates often make more money.

    In order to give students the best shot at unleashing their full potential and maximizing their chances of getting into the school of their choice, it pays to plan ahead.

    Making the Grade

    One of the best ways to prepare for college is to do well academically.

    Photo courtesy of UMD

    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 Breck School, the International School of Minnesota, and Minnetonka High School—start preparing students at a young age by offering challenging courses.

    “It’s important that families and educators begin preparing young students while they are in middle school,” says Beth Esselstrom, director, University of Minnesota-Duluth office of admissions. “Course curricula and academic achievement in core college preparatory courses are foundational for building an academic record that will most positively support applications for admission in the senior year of high school.”

    “In my opinion, students need to be aware that their high school transcripts will most likely become scrutinized by college admissions personnel beginning their freshman year,” says Kirk Neubauer, senior associate director of admissions at Luther College. “Typically, colleges look more favorably at students who have challenged themselves in high school. A transcript that shows enrollment in AP, IB, Honors, Accelerated, and PSEO classes demonstrates a willingness by a student to push him/herself in the classroom.”

    Adds Kris Roach, director of undergraduate admissions and financial aid at the University of St. Thomas, “Rigor in high school will help students cope with the rigor of college.  In some respects it is better to earn a B in a very rigorous course, as a opposed to an A in an easier course, when preparing for college.”

    It’s imperative that students not give in to “senioritis” and think they can slack off their last year of school. The college admissions game isn’t over after a student receives acceptance letters.

    According to Campus Explorer, “Admissions departments at many colleges and universities have been known to rescind the acceptance letters of students who drop their tough classes or let their GPA sink dramatically due to senior slump.”

    Extracurricular Edge

    Participating in an extracurricular activity shows good time-management skills, the ability to prioritize, motivation, responsibility, and leadership qualities.

    St. Mary's University
    Photo coutesy of st. mary’s university

    “There is no question that co-curricular involvement makes an applicant more appealing to an admissions office,” says Neubauer with Luther College. “Beyond a solid transcript, most colleges like to see applicants who are engaged outside the classroom. Is the applicant using his/her leisure time wisely? Is the student involved in athletics, music, theatre, dance, or a member of school clubs and organizations? How does the student manage his/her time? Does the student have a part-time job? Has he/she participated in some sort of community service project or mission trip?”

    When applying to schools, students should highlight the importance of their contributions and responsibilities. Admissions officers like to see students who are not only members but also leaders. They want students who can contribute inside and outside the classroom.

    The activities a student enjoys in high school can become the activities a student enjoys in college, which is why it’s important to research this aspect when looking at schools.

    “It is not just about building a resume. It is about discovering your passion and making a difference,” says Roach with the University of St. Thomas.

    The Essay

    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—Tony Piscitiello, senior advancement director 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.”

    Admissions committees are like employers, they look at the whole person, not simply statistics. The essay can be the perfect opportunity for a student with less-than-ideal grades to explain their discrepancies. “Personal essays and recommendations are a great way to get to know the applicant on a more personal level,” says Kristin Vogel, director of undergraduate admissions, Concordia University, St. Paul. “We appreciate the chance to learn more about applicants and understand their context; grades and test scores are not always the best reflection of a student’s academic preparedness or fit for a particular institution.”

    “Sometimes there are reasonable explanations for poor grades that only an applicant can articulate,” says Neubauer.


    Visiting the campus

    When students decide which schools they’re interested in, they should visit them! If possible, a campus visit is the best way to see which school most feels like “home.”

    “Print materials and websites contain a lot of valuable information, but a campus visit helps students get a real sense of what it will be like for them to be a student at that school. When students visit campus, they have a chance to interact with current students, faculty and staff members, and  get a better feel for the type of educational experiences the college/university offers. Students can arrange a campus visit by contacting the admissions office at the colleges/universities they are considering,” says Rachelle Hernandez, director of admissions, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities.

    During the visit, 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 final decision.

    We Asked; They Answered

    Admissions counselors offer valuable tips  

    Q. What’s a definite “don’t” when applying to colleges?

    A. Don’t wait until the last minute to apply. A college application consists of more than just the application itself. Students need to carefully and thoughtfully complete the application and submit all of the required materials including their high school transcript and any required test scores such as the ACT or SAT. Waiting until the last minute may mean that a student is not able to submit all of their supporting materials by the application deadline. -Rachelle Hernandez, Director of Admissions, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

    Photo Courtesy of Concordia University

    A. Don’t have your parent complete the application for you. -Kristin Vogel, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Concordia University, St. Paul

    A. If a student has clearly made a questionable decision in life, he/she shouldn’t play the “blame game.” An applicant needs to be accountable and take responsibility for his/her actions by providing accurate, honest explanations for their shortcomings. -Kirk Neubauer, Senior Associate Director of Admissions, Luther College

    A. Don’t overlook a college simply based on the price tag of that college.  Financial aid exists to help students go to college.  Merit-based scholarships are designed to help recognize and reward students for their academic successes and the contributions they’ve made to their school or community.  Both need-based aid and merit scholarships reduce the price tag of the college—often to a level that makes a college education affordable.  Apply for admission, apply for financial aid, and work with the staff at the colleges to determine a plan for making enrollment possible. -Kris Roach, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid, University of St. Thomas

    Q. Do you have any other tips or advice?

    A. The Minnesota Office of Higher Education Get Ready for College website and the College Board’s Big Future website are two great college planning resources for students and families. -Rachelle Hernandez, Director of Admissions, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities

    A. If a student is wait-listed, the applicant can reasonably assume that this decision, rather than admission, is that s/he fell short of some criteria in the first evaluation of the application and supporting materials.  The applicant should continue pursuing other opportunities while checking in periodically with an admissions’ representative at the institution at which they were wait-listed, especially if periodic updates/communications regarding status are not provided by the institution. -Beth Esselstrom, Director of Admissions, University of Minnesota-Duluth

    A. Always ask for help. In the admissions world it’s our job to bring students to our respective campuses, but we wouldn’t be in this field if we didn’t care about getting all students enrolled in higher education. If our school isn’t the right fit, we may know of another school that would be a good option. If you can’t find help at home or at your high school,  reach out to a college admissions counselor. -Adrian Perryman, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Concordia University, St. Paul

    A. Ultimately, selecting the right college/university comes down to doing careful RESEARCH.
    R- Read as much as you can about the institutions in which you’re interested.  The web makes doing such reading and research a breeze.
    E- Experience the campus, the community and its students.  Schedule an official visit through the admissions office, go on a tour, talk with faculty, attend a class, even consider staying overnight!
    S- Students who are currently enrolled at the institution(s) you’re considering can be a valuable resource.  If you have a chance to visit with a current student – do it because they can give you the “inside story” from someone living the experience today.
    E – Explore the services provided on campus that meet your current and future needs.  Check out the Career Development Center, Academic Advising, Student Services and faculty resources.
    A – Ask lots of questions.  Admissions and financial aid counselors are available to answer any and all questions you may have.  Take advantage of their knowledge and expertise.
    R – Recognize what is most important to you in your potential collegiate experience.  Know yourself.  Do you thrive in a metropolitan or rural area?  How do you like to spend your free time?  How close to home is right for you?
    C – Consider the “value” of the experience.  Cost is one factor to think about, but so are a number of other things including: access to faculty, the ability to graduate in four years, the variety of majors offered in which you’re interested, the success of graduates, networking opportunities, etc.
    H- Happiness is important.  Many students describe having a “feeling” about a particular college being the right fit.  Listen to your inner voice.

    Kris Roach, Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Financial Aid, University of St. Thomas