College Admissions 101


Getting ready for and applying to college is a long and difficult process that starts as early as the ninth grade, and choices may be limited. California’s college student population is projected to grow by 12,000 new students each year. One study indicates that to accommodate them, the state will have to create a new university every September. So, with enrollments rising so quickly, what should high school students do to ensure themselves a place in the college or university of their choice?

First off, set realistic goals. According to Sunny Halpern, college counselor at Malibu High School, students should remember that “there are thousands of colleges and hundreds that are wonderful. Everybody doesn’t have to focus on the top schools. There is a college for everybody.”

She says that getting into the University of California system is becoming increasingly difficult. “There are so many more kids. All the UCs are probably ranked in the top 25 or 50 colleges and you can’t beat the price.” She suggests trying the Santa Cruz, Irvine and Riverside campuses.

Second, prepare carefully. Halpern recommends that students think about college and career plans when they select their courses for the ninth grade. Ambitious students have to get on the college track, which means advanced placement and honors classes. She also encourages ninth graders to participate in sports and extracurricular activities.

By 10th grade, achieving high grades in honors and advanced placement classes should be the college-bound student’s paramount goal. Colleges want to see that students have challenged themselves by taking more than minimum requirements.

By l0th grade, students are supposed to start becoming familiar with colleges and begin making visits to campuses that appeal to them. Interviews with admissions personnel and alumni can also be arranged at this time.

The Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT), a practice version of the SAT I, is taken by 10th-graders in October. Corrected answer sheets give students an idea of how well they’ll do on the real thing. Students retake this test in the 11th grade, when high scorers become National Merit semifinalists or Commended Scholars.

Some students begin tutoring or group practice sessions for the SATs at this time. However, Jennifer Valdman, owner of A-Plus Educational Tutoring in Malibu, begins working with some students as early as the seventh grade. She said the decision of when to begin study sessions “depends on the age and qualities of the child.”

Halpern said that practice helps students do better on standardized tests, but, “except for those who are highly motivated, students don’t generally start [preparing] until the 11th grade.” She warned students and parents against “panicking.”

An abundance of SAT training programs exist, the best known of which are Ivy West and Princeton Review. Courses are offered after school, on weekends, and during school vacations. Some students also take the ACT Assessment test, which can be used as an alternative standardized test.

Free test preparation classes are available on the Internet. Personal computer prep courses can be purchased at a reasonable cost, as well.

UC schools are moving to eliminate SAT scores from admission requirements, however. Wealthier students can afford more training and thereby have an advantage when they take the test. This year, UC schools doubled the “weight” of the SAT II, diluting the value of the SAT I. The SAT II focuses more on achievement, while the SAT I is more of an assessment test.

At the end of 10th grade, some students take SAT II tests in advanced subjects such as biology or algebra II. The best universities require three SAT II tests along with SAT I tests in math and English.

Junior-year grades count the most. This is the time most students study SAT practice books or computer programs on their own, as well as take prep courses for the college boards. Students are advised to take a college summer course, get a job or volunteer, join a team or start a club. In other words, start collecting material that can be mentioned in application essays.

Some students take their SAT I tests for the final time at the end of the junior year. Others wait until the fall of the senior year. By then it’s time to start filing applications, collecting recommendations and writing personal essays. Most colleges have application deadlines around January 1, but the UC and California State University applications are due in November. Many students apply to their college of choice for early admission, which also occurs in the fall.

By early April, the results start to come in. It is time for many students to readjust their vision of the future.

For the well-prepared, however, the fun is just beginning. They’ll be getting a large, heavy envelope with more forms to fill out.