For far too many students seeking a higher education, the college admissions process starts the summer before their senior year of high school. However, families looking to get their children into "dream schools" should start this process much earlier. In actuality, the majority of groundwork and college prep is complete prior to the college application process. High school seniors should be focused on meetings with guidance counselors, letters of recommendation, time-sensitive application deadlines, campus visits, and prompts for application essays.
The notion that high grades are sufficient to get into a top-tier four-year university is severely misguided. Admissions officers now require more data on applicants: GPAs (weighted and unweighted), SAT scores and ACT scores, difficulty of coursework (i.e. honors classes and Advanced Placement (AP) courses), and a diverse range of extracurricular activities with regional and national awards & honors. This means that the college application process really begins as soon as a student begins high school.
My name is Justin Lee, Founder and CEO of Premiere Prep Inc. My job is to better understand what makes a student a match for elite schools, like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. My team has worked with some of the top students in Orange County, San Diego, and Los Angeles. From our data, I have outlined below prospective college student profiles and subsequent advice for each profile.
This student has a remarkably high GPA of 4.8 and excellent test scores. Is that sufficient to get into a top school, like Berkeley or MIT?
Response: Unfortunately a student’s GPA is often overestimated and misunderstood. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for many high school transcripts to show 4-5 different GPAs. These may include weighted GPAs, unweighted GPAs, classes taken throughout high school, classes taken only in 9th-11th grade, academic courses only, etc.
A student’s GPA is just one part of the equation when it comes to college admission. When making admission decisions, most universities have the ability to evaluate students against their peers from the same high school, as well as the overall applicant pool when it comes to, but not limited to, the following:
Advice: While this student may have a high GPA, he or she will be weighted amongst peers who applied to similar, if not the same, top schools. Ultimately, it will be factors other than grades and scores that will catch a top university's attention. Hobbies, passion projects, and after school unplugged activities will be critical to this student’s success in getting into an ivy league or four year university.
This student has taken several AP/IB/honors/college courses to ensure they demonstrate a high level of “academic rigor,” but they did not receive As in all of their classes. Is their effort sufficient to show that they are well rounded?
Response: The concept of quality over quantity holds true to this scenario. It’s promising to take many challenging courses, but it’s more important to do well in the classes a student takes. A cookie-cutter approach should not be applied to all high school students. Rather, a high school student should have a strong sense of self and understand which courses work best for them. Balance here is key. Challenge is encouraged in coursework, but time to work on extracurricular activities, spend a healthy amount of time interacting with peers both on and off social media, and self-care is also important.
Did you know: Percentile rankings are often applied to a student’s GPA - so even though a student’s weighted GPA is a 4.5 (which sounds high), it might be slightly deceiving. Below is a sample course list for a Junior in high school.
|Course||Final Semester Grade|
|AP U.S. History||B|
|AP English Language||B|
|AP Calculus BC||A|
|AP Spanish Language||B|
|AP Computer Science||A|
Weighted GPA = 4.5 (Excellent for earning B’s in half of this student’s classes)
Unweighted GPA = 3.5
A 4.5 GPA might seem impressive as a whole, but a student with the schedule above can accomplish this GPA with less than exceptional results. Depending on the pool of students at this high school, a 4.5 weighted GPA might place the student in the 80th percentile, but a 3.5 unweighted GPA might only place a student in the 60th percentile, or lower. It’s important to assess a student holistically before questioning why applicants with GPAs or test scores are no longer shoo-ins to ivy league universities.
Advice: One way to round out a student’s profile is to demonstrate a deep interest in certain areas where they are already performing well. For example, if a student has continuously excelled in STEM (AP Calculus BC, AP Chemistry, and AP Computer Science), their extracurricular activities and college essays should highlight their aptitude. This student has many options - for example, they can work at a non-profit teaching other kids how to code, or subject their application essay on their pursuit of Computer Science at Stanford largely inspired by a particular professor who has revolutionized cryptography research.
Keep in Mind: Students who are enrolled in AP courses and demonstrate a strong understanding of the concepts presented are encouraged to take the SAT Subject Test (if offered) in May or June, while the material is still fresh in their heads. It's astonishing how much brain drain can occur over the course of just one summer.
This student is a very involved high-schooler and has a large number of extracurricular activities and leadership experiences. Will that offset their less-than-perfect GPA?
Response: It can't be stressed enough that students seeking a college education should focus on quality over quantity. Is a student getting engaged simply to add another line item to their résumé or because they have a genuine passion for the activities in which they are involved? In other words, would this student continue pursuing said activity if they knew colleges wouldn’t give them credit for their involvement? Also significant, would this student likely continue pursuing involvement in this activity as a first-year college student?
Advice: If it's sincere passion that's driving a student's extracurricular activities, there are some points to consider:
1. How has this student impacted their peers or others at the local level (high school or community)? Statewide? Nationally? Internationally?
There’s a huge difference between 1. Starting a club with five friends who are each assigned executive leadership positions and 2. Joining an established organization, demonstrating involvement and genuine interest in the organization since the 9th grade, and running against several qualified candidates for an elected position.
2. How are students parlaying their experiences into something greater?
A student’s manner of involvement in extracurricular activities can vary significantly from student to student. Watching YouTube videos on how to code or downloading apps on an iPad is drastically different than mastering Python and Java and competing in hackathons and Olympiads.
A Freshman or Sophomore student who starts an organization at their school to promote enhanced learning within the coding and Computer Science community is promising. However, even more impressive for a college board would be if this student subsequently reaches out to local tech companies in their community to have experienced professionals mentor students at their school and/or sponsor upcoming hackathons. By Junior year, this student might opt to represent their school for the Science Olympiad, showcasing their interest in USACO (USA Computing Olympiad), and simultaneously pursuing other targeted passion projects. This is the kind of student who universities will notice as dedicated, well rounded, and a deserving candidate.
There is a lot of speculation that goes into university admissions. After reading thousands of applications through the years, I can verify that there is a very large pool of amazing talent and successful students. A student can do everything “right” and still get rejected or waitlisted; there is unfortunately no perfect formula. Amid the college application process, it is important to remember:
Strong families who support and encourage good grades, proficient test prep for standardized tests like the SATs and ACTs, and a focused extracurricular trajectory will have ample options amid the college search and final decision process. More often than not, students from these families will find themselves in the driver's seat, determining among selective colleges which is the right college to attend and which to decline.
Justin Lee is the founder and CEO of Premiere Prep Inc. He and his team have worked with some of the top students in the Orange County, San Diego, and Los Angeles areas. He is a former high school/college counselor, and Admissions Reader for the University of California system.