College Prep 2016

    The million-dollar question for kids is “What do you want to be when you grow up?” The second question is “How will you get there?”

    At many local schools, the concept of college is being introduced as early as elementary school, with middle school and high school serving as an opportunity to think more seriously about the next big step. 

    At Breck School in Golden Valley, an Episcopal, coeducational, college-preparatory day school for preschool through twelfth grade, preparing students for college is part of their mission. 

    “All members of the community—parents, students, faculty, staff, and coaches—are part of the college prep team,” says Jonathan Nicholson, director of college counseling at Breck School. “Scholars in higher education believe, for students to be successful in college, they must develop relationships with peers and faculty and become involved. From day one, we try to connect students with one another and with various faculty members in order to foster such relationships and support academic and extracurricular success.” 

    At Benilde-St. Margaret’s School (BSM) in St. Louis Park, a Catholic school for students in seventh through twelfth grade, counselors conduct “Freshmen Fridays” throughout the year, designed to show students how to be successful throughout their high school career.  When students are sophomores, they take the PLAN test, or practice ACT test, then—as juniors—take the PSAT. They attend a “Building Your Future” all-day workshop, and College Fair (with representatives from more than 120 colleges present), and by the time they’re seniors, they’re ready to take the ACT or SAT. According to Kevin Gyolai, PdD, president and CEO of Benilde-St. Margaret’s School, two additional ways in which BSM is unique in preparing students for college is through “Solver Portfolios,” when each student highlights their best class work, accomplishments, and problem-solving skills, and the Red Knight Engagement Network resource, a LinkedIn-based support and mentoring program designed for seniors and young alumni to network and create connections. 

    Students should utilize the American Association of University Professors College Readiness Checklist when preparing to apply to colleges and universities, but that’s just one part of the college prep journey, says Nicholson of Breck School.

    “I can’t state enough: a student must develop a strong sense of self and responsibility. It’s important for students to experience struggles, to overcome adversity and learn from it, and understand how to solve problems and think for themselves,” he comments. “The more we can foster independence in our students, the more prepared they will be for college and life beyond.”

    Kids Studying
     Courtesy of Benilde-St. Margaret’s School

    There are many parts to a college application, but the piece that often carries the most weight is academic performance. Because of the variation in high school grading systems and grade inflation, ACT and SAT results help many schools evaluate students on even ground. Also important are Advanced Placement, Honors, College in Schools, and International Baccalaureate courses. And college admissions officers stress the danger of “senior slump.” It doesn’t happen often, but it’s not uncommon for a school to rescind an offer due to a decline in a student’s academic performance their senior year of high school. 

    Start filling out your application early. Do not wait until 48 hours before the deadline. This way you have time to carefully proof everything, revise, revise, revise, and make the most of the essay. According to Cristiana Quinn, M.Ed., founder of College Admission Advisors, LLC, “Colleges want to know that you are going to do more than just sit in class, sleep in the dorms, and eat in the dining halls. They want students who will give back as much as they take from a school. They want thoughtful applications from conscientious students, and that takes time. So start early and proof everything judiciously before you hit the “send” button.”

    Transcripts are important because they reflect the student’s entire academic career, but many schools want to see a well-rounded applicant who will come to the school and get involved. A strong commitment to community service and leadership—volunteering—can make a positive impact, when it’s done for all the right reasons. Applicants who find activities they are truly passionate about—whether it’s a sport, yearbook, drama club, or writing for the newspaper—can write from the heart when it’s time to wow the admissions counselors through the essay. Activities done simply to impress a college have a way of appearing artificial. High-schoolers can benefit from keeping a journal of their travels or other pre-college activities as a reference for when it’s time to write the essay — where they went, what they did, and how they grew and changed as a result. Experts agree that applicants who are consistent in their commitment to a handful of activities or are specialists within a particular field have an advantage over those who are involved in many activities but show no leadership or dedication.

    Do your research about the school. Know their mission statement, values, and even faculty names—make it personal. Admissions officers seek candidates who are suitable matches, and are likely to rate applicants more favorably when they know details (and prove that they’ve done their homework).

    When writing the essay, write about something that matters to you. Use your voice. According to the admissions department at Yale, “We have read wonderful essays on common topics and weak essays on highly unusual ones. Your perspective—the lens through which you view your topic—is far more important than the specific topic itself. In the past, students have written about family situations, ethnicity or culture, school or community events to which they have had strong reactions, people who have influenced them, significant experiences, intellectual interests, personal aspirations, or —more generally —topics that spring from the life of the imagination.” Proofread carefully.  

    Don’t be afraid to contact the school directly and ask questions. According to Bryan Karl, director of first year undergraduate admissions, The College of St. Scholastica Duluth campus, “You’re not only selecting a college or university for the next four years, you’re looking into selecting a college or university that will challenge, support, and help you create a solid foundation to build upon for the next 40 years.” 

    Tour campuses. According to Rachelle Hernandez, associate vice provost for enrollment management and director of admissions at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, a Big Ten college campus with 30,511 undergraduate students enrolled this year, “You can learn a lot from a website or talking to alumni, but there isn’t anything comparable to visiting and experiencing the campus for yourself. Spend time walking through campus when classes are in session to get a sense of whether it’s right for you. Can you see yourself there? Does it feel like a good fit?” You want a school that not only inspires thinking, but feels like home. 


    Amanda, 21, University of Wisconsin- Madison  

    Major: Psychology and Biology

    How did your high school prepare you for the college application process? Southwest High School prepared me very well for the college application process. I chose to do the International Baccalaureate® (IB)  program at Southwest, along with taking Advanced Placement classes. I took as many AP tests as I could and ended up coming into college with 29 extra credits.  

    When you were looking at different campuses, what factors did you take into consideration? I wanted a larger campus and a college that was considered “good.” I wanted it to be relatively close to home in Minneapolis, but not too close where my parents would be dropping by with a bag lunch every other day. 

    How many colleges did you apply to and visit? I applied to five colleges and visited about 10.  

    What was it about your college that set it apart from the others? Madison was actually not my first choice. Ever since I had visited Chicago with Project Success, I had my heart set on Northwestern. I applied and wasn’t accepted there, and thought I would “settle” for Madison (my parents had been pushing me in that direction anyway). Getting rejected from Northwestern was probably the best thing that could have happened to me! Madison has the perfect balance of academics and social life. I am able to work hard and get a quality education, while having fun at football games and spending time on State Street with my friends. Go Badgers! 

    What advice do you have for high school students who are starting their college search? My biggest piece of advice is to apply where YOU want to apply. You are the one who will be spending the next four years at this place, so don’t let others dictate where you go. That being said, still listen to what your parents have to say—there are pros and cons of each college.    


    Meghan, 22, University of Minnesota 

    Major: Communication Studies

    How did your high school prepare you for the college application process? Edina High School offered several different opportunities to take AP classes (I took two), as well as ACT tutoring and study guides. I felt confident taking the ACT. Our teachers made it very clear that it was important to do well on the ACT.

    When you were looking at different campuses, what factors did you take into consideration? I took into consideration the size and location. For me, I really wanted to go to a big school that still felt small. The U of M is a very large campus with over 50,000 students, but it still feels small. I am able to run into friends on campus every day. I also took into consideration extracurricular activities and clubs. 

    How many colleges did you apply to?  I applied to five different colleges and visited seven. 

    What was it about your college that set it apart from the others as “the one”? I knew that the U of M was “the one” because of the feeling I had when I toured campus. I visited on a regular school day and it just felt right. I could see myself as a student there. I fell in love with how pretty the campus was, and how it’s located in the city. I also liked the idea of being able to go home for a Sunday night dinner with my family if I wanted to, without having to travel very far. 

    What advice do you have for high school students who are starting their college search? Tour as many different campuses as possible. You will never know what college is right for you until you’ve looked at several. If you know someone who attends the college, ask them to show you around (but also attend the tour run by the school). I found I was more comfortable asking questions when on a tour with someone I knew, and I was able to get a student’s perspective on campus life. 

    Photo by Studio B Photography

    Brent, 19, North Dakota State University 

    Major: Accounting

    How did your high school prepare you for the college application process? Marshall High School offered a lot of good Advanced Placement (AP) and College in School (CIS) classes. I took a few CIS classes—those were very helpful because they were actual college courses, just taught in high school. These helped me prepare for college and learn how the classes work, and I received full college credit without having to take extra tests. I could have been prepared before taking the ACT test by using specific study materials, so I admit I wasn’t very confident. (Although I did feel like I had learned a lot of concepts in school that helped me.)

    When you were looking at different campuses, what factors did you take into consideration?  I started looking at campuses and schools my senior year.  A few things I took into consideration = school size, majors, location, and how well I liked the campus.

    How many colleges did you apply to and visit? I applied to five schools—I wanted to make sure I kept my options open. I visited four colleges, two private and two public.

    What was it about your college that set it apart from the others? I chose NDSU because I really liked the atmosphere here when I came to visit. It was a nice campus and everyone seemed outgoing and friendly. The overall feeling—along with the school’s affordable tuition—made it a very good choice for me.

    What advice do you have for high school students who are starting their college search? My advice is to start the process early to give yourself enough time to look around and feel confident about your decision.