With the recent rolling out of college acceptance videos by seniors, and with freshmen in Helix First having just finished getting their college presentations ready for juniors, college applications have been on the minds of many Highlanders. Even during weekly Advisory, we are frequently reminded of the importance of having a competitive college application with good grades, extracurricular activities, and meaningful volunteer activities. Applying to college, or, just the thought of applying to college can feel overwhelming. It is easy to get lost in the many “must-haves” that are supposed to make a college application more competitive, and fall in line to follow what everyone else is doing. But, does that make sense?
Each student is a unique individual with their own individualized strengths and limitations. Some of us are athletes, others are scholars, writers, dancers, poets, or painters. Many are something in between. So, what does this mean in terms of “going to college”?
To find the answers, I contacted Mrs. Cathy Singer, Helix’s College Access Counselor, and I was grateful that she took the time to answer my questions. Mrs. Singer has guided generations of Highlanders to “the other side” – beyond Helix. This year, Mrs. Singer will celebrate thirty years at Helix and even after three decades, she says the part about her job she enjoys the most is working with Highlanders on their plans after high school. I asked her about everything from standardized testing to the popular question of “to AP or not to AP.” Her insights were both enlightening and comforting.
BP: How has your role as the College Access Counselor adapted to Distance Learning?
CS: My role has become more administrative and programmatic in distance learning and less working with students. I spend more time on procedures and protocols than assisting students live. Students do not seem to want to come to office hours and get assistance; they prefer to communicate via email which causes issues in not understanding the entire process.
BP: CSU suspended the SAT and ACT requirement for the Fall 2021 freshman class. How has this affected Helix seniors?
CS: I think more Helix seniors applied to these colleges (CSU and UC campuses) because they did not have to take the test. This also created a larger application pool nationwide at the campuses and made admissions more competitive. Some students did not get into their preferred campus because the competition was much more fierce this year. Also, some students did not spend enough time on their applications to make themselves stand out to the admissions officers. They completed them at the last minute and in a hurry. The application is the only way to communicate with the college admissions office about who you are and why they should admit you. Students should be starting early and working with purpose on them to make sure they provide the most information about themselves in order for the admissions office to want to offer them a place at their school.
BP: The UC Board of Regents voted unanimously to eliminate the SAT and ACT requirement for admission. They may or may not replace them with a new standardized test. What are your thoughts on standardized testing? What do you think about standardized testing being part of a college application?
CS: I am not a fan of standardized testing. I do not think it gives the college any information about whether the applicant will be successful in college or not. I am excited that the UC system has eliminated the tests as many private schools have been doing for years. I am hopeful the CSU will not bring them back. I think colleges can get a better idea of the student’s chance of success by hearing more about the student and what they have accomplished so far in life. The UC has a strong application process with multiple measures for admission. Testing was just 1 out of 14 things they looked at. The testing, although required, was not usually a reason a student was admitted or denied admission. The CSU however, has only looked at GPA and test scores to determine admission in the past. I think they are better suited to look at strength of schedule, time management through commitments outside of the school day and allowing the applicant to answer questions that will tell them more about the applicant and their intentions in college.
BP: What are your thoughts about taking AP classes versus college classes while in High School? Is one better than the other?
CS: I think both AP and college classes have value and the student should look at the curriculum to decide which is better for them. I don’t think students should be choosing classes in high school just to get college credits. They should be looking at the content of the class and if they are interested in that content, then challenge themselves at a higher level. I think many students (and parents) have gotten so caught up in taking all the hardest classes and getting “ahead” that they miss out on the learning and the excitement of classes. So many students are so overwhelmed with the quantity of AP and college courses on their schedule that they cannot devote the time necessary to really learn the material and decide if this is an area they want to pursue in college. Whether one is better than the other is a personal decision by the student. From a college admissions standpoint, they are equal. Both show the student’s ability to perform in a high-standard class. If a student is just looking for college credits, then I think the college courses are a better choice because they grant college credits if you pass the class without an external exam. But AP challenges the student to really learn the material as the external exam is a norm-referenced exam that is given across the world regardless of instructor or school. Both AP and College courses are a good idea for students who want to go to college. However, I think students should step back and only take those courses in areas of interest to them and allow them the time to really delve into the course and learn.
BP: What are 3 things that could make a college application more competitive?
CS: This is a tough question as each college application is put together differently. However, I will answer as if I were advising a freshman or sophomore who still has time to adapt their high school experience.
Be well-rounded. Have involvement outside of the classroom. Whether that is sports, clubs, working, taking care of family…Being able to show that you can be a person AND a student is important. Quality of involvement is more important than quantity. Choose activities that you have passion for and build your resume within a few activities with leadership and community service.
If there is an opportunity to write about yourself, take the time to add value to your application. Use the writing prompt as a chance to tell the admissions committee something new about yourself. Do not repeat what is already on your application. This requires you to complete the application before writing your responses. Too many applicants write about what has already been addressed on their application. Tell them something NEW about you.
Take challenging courses, but ONLY in areas that you will do exceptionally well and are interested in learning more deeply. Stick with college prep for those subjects you “have to” take but are really not interested in to ensure you get the highest grade possible.
BP: What advice do you have for juniors applying to college soon?
CS: Do your homework. By that I mean look at a variety of colleges to apply to. Do NOT get stuck in the rut of applying only to the name-brand schools that everyone else is applying to. Too many students only apply to the schools that are well known. They think this makes them better schools. It does not. It usually just means they have a really good athletic program so they are on TV a lot. Not that they are not good schools, but there are SO many great schools out there. The NAME of your college is not important to your future. What you do at college is important. Do not get sucked into the “ego-building well” that says, “I am only as good as the name of the college I am admitted to and attend.” You are GREAT as you are. AND if you choose a college that best fits YOU and not just because of the name or reputation, you will have an amazing college experience and go on to do great things in life because you went to a school that suits you individually and not society’s opinions.
For high school students, college has become a synonym for independence, self-sufficiency, and most of all – freedom. It is a path that launches us into adulthood, and most of us cannot wait to get there! But, college is not the only way to achieve any of these goals. There are many paths, such as trade school, culinary school, or an apprenticeship, that could lead to financial independence and self-sufficiency just as well as college.
Whichever path you choose, it is important to not lose sight of who you are and what is important to you. If college is your chosen path, then make the journey of getting to college just as important as the destination of college itself. Being true to yourself and knowing your strengths and limitations when you choose your courses will make this journey more enjoyable and exciting.
Resist the temptation to follow the herd. And, most of all, remember what Mrs. Singer said, “You are GREAT as you are.”