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PDF Editor FAQ
For a given child, does going to an elite and well known high school improve or hurt his/her chances of getting into a top 10 university?
Which high school you attend and how you compare academically relative to your peers matters, and sometimes is, if not the determining factor, then at least a very important factor in the college admission process. By the word “peers” I mean both those students around the country and the world who are going to apply to the same colleges as you, as well as those students in your school who are applying to these colleges too. There are some paradoxes and contradictions when it comes to evaluating if the particular secondary school you currently attend will benefit or hurt you in terms of getting accepted to highly selective colleges. And it will take me more than you probably want to know or read to try to cover this in ways that are not misleading or superficial.IFirst of all, it is important to note that after or during the process of evaluating your particular application, virtually every highly selective university looks at applicants within the context of the school you currently attend. Admission offices like to promote how they make decisions based upon a holistic evaluation of each individual applicant. Every admission office website underscores this part of the process and it is one way that the US admission process differs from most others around the globe which tend to use national exams to determine who gets in. In the US, colleges make it very clear that they are fully committed to enrolling a diverse student body. Diversity is one of the vaguer words in the admission process vocabulary and it has a range of meanings, but you can be sure that it applies to students from:different backgrounds and locations around the US and the worlddifferent income levels (especially if the school has committed to meeting full aid for all admitted students)different racial and ethnic groupsdifferent sexual orientationdifferent educational backgrounds (a range that covers the first in the family to attend college to having two parents with professional/advanced degrees).There are other groups that certain types of schools highlight (for example, in and out of state residents for state affiliated colleges). But not nearly as many schools put in writing that they wish to enroll students from a large number of high schools Why? Because in order to do this it might make it harder for students who attend some exceptionally good secondary schools and who might have stronger academic credentials than students from schools that rarely send students to highly selective schools (both schools in rural areas and inner-city neighborhoods would fall into the latter category).Schools do two different things when evaluating applicants—one is to read students as individuals and the other is to read them as a member of one or more groups. The former is what most people think of when they interpret the holistic admission process; the latter is often brought up in ways that show how contentious putting people in groups can be (especially by race or legacy status or athletic ability) in a country in which the national discourse often focuses on the sanctity of the individual. Colleges and universities, however, have different priorities in part because they are composed of a variety of groups and are committed to serving communities not just individuals.One group that students are put in by colleges and universities (unless they are home schooled) is the secondary school they attend. Simply put, colleges and universities evaluate and then use information about a students’ secondary school in terms of the offerings that are available and in terms of where the each student who has applied ranks against the others. Colleges run data that shows all the students who have applied from the same secondary school in a given year. In addition, some schools run historical summaries which show what the school has done with that particular secondary school’s applicants in previous years. (There is a platform that gathers data for secondary schools about their applicants to colleges, called Naviance. It uses gpa and test scores that aps on a scattergram all the decisions made on applicants over a 5-year period--accept, wait list, deny).Colleges examine students within school groups for several reasons. First of all, there are now very few highly competitive secondary schools that actually provide rank in class to colleges. By highly competitive, I mean selective private schools, boarding schools, and public schools that are located in high income school districts and which send the vast majority of their students on to 4-year colleges. The schools have found that they take too much heat from parents about tiny differences in gpa which goes into determining who ends up as the valedictorian or in the top 10% of the class. (Some schools now name dozens of students as covaledictorians --a few have over 100). This decision not to rank students is not just to give a large group of students "special snowflake" status. They also believe ranking creates unnecessary competition among the students who are already stressed out about getting the highest possible gpa now that admission to the most highly selective schools is under 10%.But here is the thing that many do not know about how colleges still manage to create its own ranking of students. Even if schools provide no information about rank to universities, students still get “ranked” in school groups. Colleges look at students’ transcripts and examine their gpa relative to other applicants so even though there is not an official ranking by the secondary school the colleges still rank students on their own. This can be helpful to the colleges for a number of reasons. Secondary schools determine gpa in very different ways. Some schools add .5 to the gpa for classes that are designated as honors and give a whole point added to the gpa for AP classes. It is no longer unusual to see students with a 3.8 gpa actually being in the bottom half of the class due to weighting. Having students group;ed by gpa lets admission officers get a snapshot of the individual student within the group as well as a snapshot of how much weighting goes into the grading system. Some schools have admission officers firt read applicants in school groups, so they see immediately where they stand compared to their peers. Others look at school groups after the application has been read by at least one or mother readers. Looking at school groups also helps the colleges to make sure they have been at least somewhat consistent in their decisions.When schools receive thousands of applications it is hard to keep track of every applicant and every decision without running reports. For example, school groups give colleges the opportunity to have another look to see why a student with a lower gpa was offered admission over another student with higher grades and testing. This helps, in some cases, avoid a call from the counselors from the secondary school after the decisions have gone out asking why a “weaker” student was offered admission/ Parents often call asking this same question, but most colleges will not address particular cases with parents. In some cases, it is clear why a student lower down in terms of gpa was offered admission--students with a special talent, a legacy tie, or who is a member of an under-represented group; or who is the first in the family attend college , or from a low-income background all might get in ahead of a student who does not have one of these so called “hooks”.While colleges all say they do not have quotas (and this is true I think) they do, however, have goals and limitations in terms of the number of students they can accept. For example, State universities have, in some cases, legal restrictions on the percentage of in and out of state residents. They must determine exactly how many students they can bring in from out of state or face budget cuts of they exceed this amount. State schools want a good representation of out of state students because typically the applicant pool is much larger (49 states vs. one) and the amount of tuition they pay is at least double those of in-state. It is always a balancing act to try to come in at just the right percentage and whether one wants to call this a quota or not this is effectively what it is.Private schools can drill down deep into data to make sure they get the mix of female and male they want. How else could Harvard, for example, come in at just about 50/50 year in and year out without running numbers and effectively picking students in part by gender. Some colleges narrow offers down by geography, so, for example, they will only offer to so many students from the Northeast or the far West etc. And more controversially, some schools have “goals” what the percentage of students they wish to enroll by race. Of course, it is not a firm quota (an exact number) but the difference between a goal and quota is often negligible. However, it is against the law to have quotas based on race, but it is not if a school has goals. A look at the percentage of Asian students at the Ives will give some sense of how virtually all these schools bring in almost the same exact percentages each year. This is not an accident and is one of the things that will likely come up in the Harvard lawsuit that is unfolding as I write this.There are no laws about giving students from a specific school or geographic location a plus or minus in the overall evaluation. For example, it is harder to get in from the Northeast to most of the colleges in Boston unless the school is what is called a “feeder school”. A feeder school is one that most have likely heard of think -- Exeter. Typically, at a school like about a third or more of the students attend top 20 ranked schools attend Ivies. Some schools benefit from having “family ties”. Boston Latin is a wonderful school and does have a number of great students. They also have a number of students whose parents are on the faculty at Harvard, and schools like to keep faculty happy. Any college will give at least a special look to students whose parents or parents work at the school.The joke that is often told in admission is that a student who attends a school in North Dakota has a much better chance of getting in than a student from virtually any school in the Northeast or West Coast. But it isn’t really a joke. Colleges do like to show on their academic profile that they have enrolled students from all or nearly all 50 States. It is less true internationally, in part because there are far more countries than States. Nevertheless, it is far harder to get into top colleges from China, India, Korea, and Singapore than it is from any other countries in the world. These countries produce thousands of students who are as good or better than any students anywhere, but colleges are not going to use up all their international slots on just a few countries any more than they are going to enroll students from a small group of States in the US. Students from some countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Honduras, The Congo, for example, would be given a huge plus in admission because so few students have the academic background to do well in a competitive college or university. Many of these students will need financial aid and only a very few US schools have aid for international students and almost all of them are the most highly selective schools.There is, however, one set of 17 schools around the world that has a unique advantage in placing students at top universities. They are called United World Colleges (UWCs for short), and they are unique places located in often less than typical campuses all over the globe (a castle in Wales, on top of a mountain in India etc.).United World CollegesEach of them has a student body who attend these boarding schools (a few offer day school options), for at least two years while completing courses in the International Baccalaureate program. Most of the students who attend these schools do so because they have been awarded need-based scholarships. Their funding comes from a variety of sources--countries, royal families, and, most significantly, a US billionaire, Shelby Davis, who has given a billion dollars to the UWCs to provide scholarships for students who to attend both the UWCs and then a select group of highly selective colleges. His funding permits schools to enroll these often-needy students without having to spend as much of its own need based funds to enroll them. Therefore, the acceptance rates of students from the UWCs to schools in the US is much higher than almost any international school and higher than most schools in the US too. Students have to be selected through a rigorous process from countries around the world especially if they need full funding.I have been to many of the campuses and the students who attend these schools often have overcome staggering odds to end up there. They have risen to the top of their countries’ education systems despite grinding poverty or war or civic unrest. Some students who can pay do attend these schools too and they often benefit both in terms of living among a truly global student body and because these schools enjoy great relationships with the top universities in the US and around the world. Students who come from these schools add a perspective that few students ever could, and this is one of the reasons they are admitted at a higher rate than students from even most of the top secondary schools. If students were truly interested in a unique secondary education and gaining an advantage in the highly selective admission process, then attending a UWC is an option to consider.IIOne of the best books I have read about the admission process is The Gatekeepers by Jacques Steinberg. I have written about it several times because even though It is a bit dated it is still one of the best inside views of the admission process I have read. It traces the way one particular admission officer at Wesleyan University does his job. One part of his job consisted of fielding phone calls from counselors from some of the top private schools who were advocating for some of their students prior to final decisions by the admission office. Colleges do not like to talk much about this because it smacks of elitism and favoritism. In one particular case a counselor advocates for a student who was on the borderline for Wesleyan and the call edged the student into the offer pile. And while this it is true this is clearly not fair, it does not tell the whole story.Networking is going to happen in any field and to think it won’t is willfully naïve. For example, there are national and local conferences all over the world for educators to meet and connect. The vast majority of secondary school counselors who attend these meetings are from either private schools or schools that have large enough budgets to send people to a several day conference that will end up costing thousands of dollars. Schools also host counselors on their campuses and often pay the fees for them to fly in and go to MLB baseball games etc. At one level, everyone is performing as a lobbyist. Admission officers try to get the counselors to encourage great students to apply and counselors encourage the colleges to take more of their students. Colleges usually have admission offices that are organized so that there are regional readers or deans who are in charge of a particular part of the country. The admissions officers and the high school counselors then get to know one another and build relationships some of them extending back decades. Like any form of networking ,a large part is focused on building trust. If there is trust then when a secondary school counselor makes a special case for a student there may be some flexibility in moving as student from the wait list or deny piles into the offer pile.This may sound more sinister than it often is. It could be the counselor is advocating for a scholarship student at the school who has lower testing and grades but who would be a good fit for the school. So, while this student may end up having an advantage in getting in because of this special appeal, many in education would support this less than perfectly fair process. In addition, the main figure in The Gatekeepers is a strong advocate for under-represented students. He becomes an advocate for these students and they have a much better chance of getting in than most student at even the most prestigious secondary schools in the US. But it would be disingenuous to leave things here. Counselors may contact schools to go over the school group prior to decisions going out and if the counselor has someone who is currently on the wait list they may do a quick pitch for the student. And some will also ask for students who are in the deny group be moved to the wait list just to make the decision less of a blow to the student’s ego. Some colleges do not accept these kinds of phone calls. Others do. Some change decisions based on the calls. Others don’t. But back room deals happen everywhere, and this is one part of the admission process that does favor the schools that have developed relationships and contacts.The typical narrative in the world of admission these days often highlights the gap between the haves and have nots. The gap is so wide and deep that it makes the process unfair to those who do not have the economic means to compete with those who do. Students whose parents are in the top 10% in terms of income can afford to live in neighborhoods where the schools are good, or, if they think public schools is not the best choice then they send their children to private day schools or boarding schools. In addition, they can pay for expensive test prep, summer programs, travel, access to internships, and the kind of overall support that is not possible for those who are low-income. Equal access is an ideal that does not come close to existing in the real world.As with any metanarrative that gets applied as a uniform template of a large and unwieldy group of disparate people, there is a lot of truth to this but there are also important exceptions. If we start to get granular about how each student is hurt or helped by their circumstances, then things can get complicated. There is, however, no doubt that in the aggregate, those at the top of the income pyramid attend better schools, have more support and so get, far more often than not, a dramatic advantage in selective admission process.While this is all true, it does not tell the whole story. For example, there are low income students who attend Exeter, Andover, Brearley , Lawrenceville, Harvard-Westlake etc. on need-based scholarships. These students are often the ones who have the best chance of anyone in these tony schools to get into the most selective universities, because they not only attend an elite secondary school, but also have overcome a great deal in order to be there. Colleges are committed to enrolling under-represented students like these because they clearly have the ability to do well academically and socially on any campus.Does attending a great secondary school alter one’s life chances and not just the chances of getting into a small set of selective colleges? Of course, but the changes that occur for low-income students are greater than those who are already in the upper middle class. Advantaged students typically have a strong safety net that will help them in life. Low income students who get in to top ranked colleges on full need-based scholarship will graduate without any debt and will have a chance to enter into competition for jobs on Wall Street, Silicon Valley. When 30-40 % of the students at Princeton go into the highly competitive field of consulting upon graduation it shows that where one goes to college matters and this is one of the reasons so many families and students are focused on getting into elite college—their life chances are better, in the aggregate, for their graduates.IIIIs everyone who attends a great private or manet school in a better position to get accepted to the top ranked colleges?Sort of. I often tell the story of a conversation I had with the college counselor at one of the top boarding schools in the US. Schools like this tout their 30% acceptance rate to Ivies when trying to get people to pay $60,000 a year to send their son or daughter there. I asked the counselor if he ever disaggregated that 30% and showed the prospective parents the ones who get in to those schools. And he said “of course not “. Why? Because it would not be in the school’s best interest to do so.So, I will do it. Of that 30%, a fair number of the students are recruited athletes. Not many secondary schools have hockey rinks (the school I mentioned above has 2), but all the Ivies have hockey teams and they need athlete that will make them look good against their Ivy competition. While these students are not often at the top academically they do, if they are identified as recruited athletes, have the best chance of getting into top schools. Talented athletes, especially in a few sports that are largely limited to a tiny number of secondary schools—hockey and rowing and squash being the top 3—are far more likely to get in the any valedictorian at almost any school who does not something special besides great grades, test scores and recommendations. It should not go unremarked that almost all these sports are composed of white students.In the case of rowing it is best to be female. Title 9 legislation means colleges need women rowers to help offset the large number of football players to meet the guideline that there should be equal number of male and female varsity athletes. Football is a problem because there are so many players on the team and, obviously, no female team, so rowing, which requires a number of boats and athletes helps offset football. Very few schools around the US public or private, have boathouses and crew teams. Talented athletes who attend schools with high price tags and great specialized athletic facilities reap the benefits of attending these schools.In addition, low-income under-represneted scholarship students who attend these schools are also at a significant advantage in the admission process. In most cases, these students have far better academic programs and opportunities at these schools than if they had stayed at home. And then there are, of course the legacies who get special consideration for admission at almost all of the most selective colleges. The acceptance rate for legacies at the Ivies is far higher than it is for students who does not have a hook (athlete, under-represented group). In addition, there are international students who, if the come from certain Asian countries typically end up at or near the top of the class academically. Because attending top schools in the US is a goal many of the best students in China wish to pursue and because it is seen as an edge in admission if a Chinese student attends a great boarding school in the US it is now as hard or harder to get into to top boarding schools from China than it is to get in all but the most selective colleges. They tend to come in with exceptional academic backgrounds and tend to leave with academic prizes at the end of the year along with a prestigious college to head off to in the Fall.What all this means is that the average (if this is the correct word since getting into these schools is very competitive) student who attends these top boarding schools and who wishes to get in to a top 20 school without a hook may actually be at a competitive disadvantage, in some cases, than if they had stayed at home and been a star in the local school. I would still argue that the overall experience of attending a great boarding school may be worth the investment because of the things that come with the education that do not automatically translate into being offered admission to a top 10 university.Something similar in terms of admission happens at the magnet schools that are public and paid for by taxpayers. Places like Stuyvesant and Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology have the reputation as among the best secondary schools in the US. The students who get in have been at the very top of the selection criteria and they feed off the atmosphere of learning and, typically, do amazing things in secondary school and beyond. The list of Novel winners and others who have done exceptional things who come from the New York magnet schools is long.But there are two problems that these students have when it comes to getting accepted at top schools. The first has to do with the effort of colleges to enroll students from a wide variety of secondary schools around the US. They could take a couple hundred students from each of the schools I have mentioned and all of them could compete both academically and outside of the classroom with just about anybody. But colleges want to get students who will contribute because they have different experiences and backgrounds. Therefore, schools limit the number of students they will take from even the best schools.To give just one example, I will use information about students at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax Virginia. I have written about this school before and have included some great comments about the experience of going there from students. It is without doubt one of the top secondary schools in the world. Although a public school, it requires everyone who wishes to attend to apply and it is not unlike the holistic process that colleges use. They accept about 17% of those who apply.There are several things worth pointing out on the profile. The first is the average test scores students earn. The SAT average, of 2200 ( or 1510, converting it from the old to the new SAT) puts the typical student above the top 98th percentile in the nation. This means in their class of over 400 students at least 200 are in the top 1%. In the admission profession many people point out that SATs are not a good predictor of academic success compared to other measures such as the transcript and grades. While this is true of scores overall, those students who score in the top 1% are far more likely to do well academically that any student who is in the top 50% or below. Most studies about the effectiveness of standardized tests to do not disaggregate test scores at the tail ends of the bell curve since it undermines the narrative that scores are not useful. But if top 1% scores do not convince people who hate the SAT that the students at TJ are better prepared than most to do well there are other factors cannot be easily dismissed.There is almost no disagreement that the two factors that are the best predictors of academic success are-- courses a student takes and the grades he or she earns during grades 9-12. The course offerings at TJ are far beyond what almost any secondary school offers. Many TJ students are arriving on college campuses several years ahead in terms of course work in the STEM fields. In fact, many TJ students arrive on campus with a lot more STEM courses than many students who attend college for four years. And the courses they take are not the whole story. They also have conducted research in ways very few secondary students do. Students have the benefit of being in a research hub, so they can get experience at start up tech firms and NIH, to name just a few.Once again, these opportunities and puts TJ students at the top 1%. When focusing on grades, however, it is hard to make a case that a TJ student has higher grades than most other students. Grade inflation is so rampant in high schools that almost 50% now earn A grades. As gpas continue to rise the ability of schools to predict success based on grades fall. In addition, more and more schools no longer rank their students. A generation ago only small private schools did not rank. Now almost all private schools and most public schools in the suburbs and upper middle-income districts no longer rank. Schools choose not to rank for a variety of reasons in part because it seems misleading to differentiate students by tiny difference in gpa that may be based on whether a student took a gym class or not and in part because the US News ranks schools based on the % of students in the top 10% and schools with great students were seeing fewer students get in because it would potentially lower the rankings.A's are on the rise in report cards, but SAT scores struggleEven though the average gpa at TJ is quite high there is still one way for their students to demonstrate have actually earned their high grades--the results of their AP exams. As the profile states, students took nearly 3900 AP exams. This is such a staggeringly large number that I would bet that it tops the total number of APs taken by all the students in certainly less than populous States. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that 97% of the students earn grades of 3 or higher, the score that many colleges use to grant academic credit.The reason I underscore the AP numbers is that the Dean of Admission at Harvard has said that AP scores are the best predictor of success there, better even than grades and transcript:We have found that the best predictors at Harvard are Advanced Placement tests and International Baccalaureate Exams, closely followed by the College Board subject tests. High school grades are next in predictive power, followed by the SAT and ACT.Guidance Office: Answers From Harvard's Dean, Part 2Given all this data which demonstrates that TJ is at the very top in terms of preparing students to do well at any university, one would assume that this would translate into the number of students who get into the top 30 ranked schools being exceptionally high. And this is true. Sort of. (Again.)A glance at the profile show that of the acceptance rate at three of the top State Universities in the US is far higher than their average acceptance rate. For Uva-- 224/348 students were accepted (64% acceptance). the average acceptance rate for Virginia residents to Uva is 29%. William and Mary and Virginia Tech accepted 82% of TJ applicants. These colleges recognize the strength of entire student body at TJ. During my time at Uva the statistics showed that students from TJ earned the highest gpa of any school with over 10 students enrolled of any school in the world. Given that there are over 400 students from TJ at Uva this is a testament that the school has done exactly what it was designed to do—produce expectational graduates who will do well in college.Looking at a number of highly selective colleges on the profile, it is clear that they too accept TJ students at a rate that is much higher than the typical high school. Technical schools like CMU and Georgia Tech offer to over 34% of its applicant about 20 percentage points higher than the overall acceptance rates. Most of the top ranked schools acceptance rate tare twice as large as the overall rate. But there are exceptions.Princeton, MIT and U Penn offer to about 10% of the TJ applicants. For a school that specializes in STEM the acceptance rate at MIT seems especially low. What does not show up on the profile, except in an oblique way, is the acceptance rate to Harvard and Stanford. The profile only lists schools which have accepted 10 or more students. These two schools have decided there are not even 10 students at arguably the best school in the US who have earned a spot. It is more than a safe bet that the acceptance rate for these two schools from TJ is under 10%. For those who want evidence of how much demographics and geography and other factors play into admission at the most selective colleges, they need look no further than this.Many people would be surprised to learn that attending a school like this while providing a huge advantage to getting in to many top schools dos not help that much when it comes to Harvard, Princeton or Stanford. Of course, these colleges do not have an exact quota, but they will reach a point (and it is pretty consistent each year) where anyone below a certain gpa and a certain set of standardized scores on the SAT/ACT and AP exams is pretty much doomed if they are not hooked. To put it simply, non-hooked students at the most competitive secondary schools need to be at the top of the class even if the competition and academic accomplishments are, on average, far greater than at any non-magnet school. As a result, some students’ parents are choosing to keep their children from attending the magnet school; instead, they keep them in their neighborhood school in hoping that their children will be of the valedictorian who will get in instead of the person “only” in the top 5% of a school that has 150 National Merit Semifinalists. Some might call taking such a small number of TJ students a misguided policy on the part of the colleges. And many I hope would think not having a child attend a magnet school in the hopes of increasing the chances of him or her getting into an Ivy as a very bad idea.In addition, there is a very inconvenient truth that is getting a lot of attention in the media and in courtrooms. The vast majority of these students at magnet schools like TJ or Stuyvesant are, at least currently, Asian. As anyone who has read the headlines recently in the New York Times and elsewhere, there is a lawsuit against Harvard that is based on the study that Harvard itself carried out which concluded that the admission office discriminates against Asians. Opinion | Harvard Is Wrong That Asians Have Terrible PersonalitiesAt the same time, in New York, Mayor De Blasio has put forward a plan that would drastically reduce the number of Asians students who currently make up the vast majority of students at the 8 magnet schools. 75% of the students at Stuyvesant, the crown jewel of the NYC system, are Asian, even though they comprise just 15% of the overall NYC population. The new selection system will get rid of the standardized test currently used to select students and implement a percentage plan in which a set number of students automatically get in from every middle school in the city. Many have argued recently that making it more difficult for Asians, many of whom are low income --they have the largest percentage of low income students in New York City- is unjust. They spend time, money and effort to do well on the test. The test does not favor them in any way except that it rewards those who prepare for the test more than those who do not.Opinion | No Ethnic Group Owns Stuyvesant. All New Yorkers Do.I have been lucky enough to visit secondary schools around the country and the world. In most cases I have visited schools where the majority of students are motivated, the facilities are up to date, and the teachers excellent. But I have also visited schools in Appalachia, New York and other locations where fewer than 10% of the students will go on to college. In many cases I have sat in on classes and talked with students in groups or individually. There is what I would call an energy field in certain classes I have been in whether it be at one of the magnet schools in Shanghai or Singapore, or at Stuyvesant or TJ. The teachers expect students to be fully prepared and in almost all cases I have observed they are. They are focused and seem to enjoy the interaction between the teacher and their fellow students. When classes end and the hallways fill, there is an energy that is both powerful and intense in ways that I find unique and inspiring. Having students ask me questions from schools like this I come away humbled at the level of knowledge and achievement these students have already attained.On the other hand. I don't know that I have been treated so well as when I visited schools in Appalachia. People all say hi and thank me for making the effort to get there. But inside the classes many students are not engaged; some have their heads down on their desks and are asleep. I can’t really blame them. Most have already decided college is not for them and they are headed to the military or trade school. They are essentially passing time until graduation.The same can be said of students I have met at some Inner-city schools. Too often, these students are living in environments where they do not have access up to date text books or lab equipment. Some call schools like these warehouses as students do not get a chance to learn much but are kept off the streets. Nevertheless, gangs recruit heavily at these schools and these organizations have a much higher “enrollment rate” than colleges and universities. My brother taught in these schools for 25 years and his heart was broken many times when bright students gave up learning because they had to choose a gang or worry about their safety and their family.The disparities between schools exists on virtually every level, whether economic, pedagogical, cultural. One’s life choices are opened or limited by what kind of secondary school one attends. Every year there are calls for leveling the playing field and for improving education at most schools, but very little has changed in the past several generations to close the achievement gaps or create schools that can dramatically improve the chances of most low-income students.For example, If Mayor De Blasio’s New York plan is adopted, more under-represented students will likely have a chance to get the opportunity to attend the top colleges and universities. It will be similar in the same way that the under-represented scholarship students at the boarding schools and private schools will have the many of the top colleges in the US recruiting them. This will, however, come at a price of keeping out low income Asian students whose parents are recent immigrants. But most in education at secondary schools and colleges think this is a worthwhile trade off. The courts may not agree. (I will be addressing this issue in a future blog entry.) And neither does the current President. President Trump and his administration have just sent a message to schools across the US which reverses direction from the Obama administration with respect to affirmative action: “The Trump administration said Tuesday that it was abandoning Obama administration policies that called on universities to consider race as a factor in diversifying their campuses, signaling that the administration will champion race-blind admissions standards.”Trump Officials Reverse Obama’s Policy on Affirmative Action in SchoolsGiven all the politics and legal issues, things are uncertain when it comes to how and if affirmative action will survive these current challenges. If it does not, then there will be little change in terms of the composition of magnet high schools, but it is likely that in an effort to still have a diverse student body magnet high schools and selective colleges may adopt percentage plans similar to the one proposed by Major De Blasio or the one currently in place in Texas. Secondary school students in Texas who are in the top 6% of their school are automatically admitted to University of Texas. This helps to create opportunities for students of color since there are still de facto segregation at many schools there (and around the US). Taking a certain percentage at the top of the class of all high schools will mean that underrepresented students will still get in to selective state universities even if affirmative action gets struck down. This, in effect, is what the NYC city plan is about but getting rid of the test and replacing it with a percentage while the plan will dramatically alter the racial composition, it will come at the cost of pushing out low income Asian students who have done nothing wrong except for perhaps out testing everyone else.As I mentioned above, the atmosphere of a magnet school is one that mirrors the atmosphere of highly selective colleges and universities. There are very few slackers, and all have high aspirations. While this increases stress levels it also creates an environment that the alumni of Stuyvesant underscore in defending keeping the admission to the school the way it is. If the school admits students who are, for example, two years behind in terms of mathematics courses the school will have to design a two tiered system of classes and have to re-allocate already limited resources.To sum up, at long last, attending a wonderful secondary school will prepare students for success better than attending a school beset by budget woes and weak facilities and underpaid and overworked teachers. This much is obvious.But it is also true that what group one belongs to within different schools will determine a great deal when it comes time for colleges to pick students. As a parent I would always pick the best school that a child could go to and thrive in. Even if they did not get into a top ranked school they would still have the skills and the atmosphere that would foster a love of learning. Studies show that students with high grades and testing do well in life regardless of whether they attend a top 20 school.
What are the dirty little secrets of college admissions?
These questions are always awkward because they imply there is some kind of foul play or secret going on with admissions.Admissions are typically far more straightforward than people think. The people who work hard, earn the grades, and stay consistent, get in. Of course, with anything that involves probability, your odds can be improved strategically.Here are nine strategies you can use to better your odds at USC, UCLA, or UC Berkeley.I intentionally picked these three schools. I like to think of them as the trifecta.These are the three you want. These are the three that most people want.My little sister, my younger cousin, and I all attended UC Berkeley. That wasn’t an accident, and there are definitely items that admissions committees look at when accepting students into the new class.As a native of Los Angeles, this was the dream trifecta. People see UCLA and UC Berkeley as the two best public universities in the entire world. Each year, UCLA and UC Berkeley take turns de-throning each other from the top spot. Students see USC as an amazing private school in its own right.Out of high school, I didn’t go to any of these schools. Instead, I went to community college.Out of community college, I was admitted to all three. When I was admitted as a transfer, my sister was admitted as a four-year (out of high school).Unlike other places, there is no general ‘frequently asked questions’ page about admissions. Each school directs you to either a phone number or an e-mail to direct your questions. Those answers are almost always different at each school.Many students are left confused about the process.Making matters worse, a community college or high school counselor will be ill-equipped to inform you on any matters relating to the transfer experience; or, what it takes to get in.I’ve found that my years in community college and high school were great, but the counselors and general guidance was always substantially lacking.Here are the things I strongly believe influence or help in the admissions game:Get assisted with ASSIST.I never see this resource, and it pains me. Assist is a website that tells you every single course you need to matriculate to a four-year UC or CSU school. It’s not a perfect resource, but no resource is.For things related to the engineering disciplines, assist can be a little off. You might need to use a school’s specific matriculation page.Outside of that, it’s a fairly straightforward and painless resource.You get the college you are currently at, the college you want to transfer to, and the year you are transferring.If the current year’s transfer agreements don’t exist, it will use the previous years’. After you find the two schools in the drop-down menu, you’ll be given a list of majors to choose from.That’s right. It will give you courses for any major that you want. Some of them will be empty, since the schools won’t offer the classes that are necessary, or the only requirement will be to follow the IGETC or the destination college’s guidelines.If I choose mathematics, and choose to transfer to Berkeley out of a community college in Los Angeles, it will post this information up:This is in addition to regular courses you need to transfer, which they also go over:Having this information as early as possible gives you the ability to pause and think things over about how to best attack the transfer approach.As my European history teacher used to say in high school:“Never forget the 6 Ps: Prior proper preparedness prevents poor performance.”The honors system.At my community college, they had a set of courses designated as “honors” courses. Most of the time, these courses were the same courses you would regularly take, but they would add on a few more assignments.The purpose of the honors system is a bit ambiguous. It is designed to yield a bit more depth into the coursework, but most students end up ignoring it altogether.This gives serious students a leg-up. You don’t need a perfect grade point average, you need to hold a 3.5 or above with the honors stamp, meeting all of their requirements, and your odds of getting into the trifecta are greatly increased.I think that, for my year, approximately 90% of the students who applied under the honors program got into UCLA.It’s dramatic and underused.Space out the difficult coursework.Everybody knows that classes aren’t built with the same intensity. As classes grow vertically and higher in-depth or horizontally and begin to span more topics, you find yourself with some classes that are much harder than the rest.These are the classes that can destroy a transcript.Specifically, these are courses that way down the entire semester as a whole.In semesters where you find yourself taking two of these classes, you’ll discover that you’ll perform worse on easier courses, too. This is something to consider, as you would want to isolate the courses you anticipate you won’t do as well in so you can balance the rest of your transcript as neatly as possible.I feel strange attempting to gamify and calculate points on a page, but, at the end of the day, college acceptance is a numbers game, and the ones that look the nicest tend to win.Practice min-maxing as frequently as possible.Look up professors before you take their class.Professors are notoriously bad in community college.No, not all of them.Places like RateMyProfessors are great supplements to give students a background for what’s to be expected in a class. Sometimes, you won’t mind if the professor teaches very little but also expects very little from the students for a great grade.Other times, if you’re determined to major in mathematics, you really need a professor to teach you lower-division linear algebra — and to teach it well.I should emphasize that websites like these have an inordinate bias, as the ones that review are usually the ones that did extremely poorly in the class. It’s always something to keep in mind — due diligence is always of the utmost importance.No, the infamous “W” is not going to kill your chances at acceptance.In fact, I know someone who got the Regents award with a “W” on her transcript.A “W” is the mark you get when you have dropped a class after the deadline to drop classes has passed. This usually means the student was doing poorly in the course leading up to the drop.To denote that, a mark in our school is placed. “W” is there to signify withdrawal.However, even though most schools will say they look at them closely, the truth is that nobody is certain about this.I’ve seen applications with multiple withdrawals get into the trifecta. I had a close friend get the highest scholarship award to Berkeley, the Regents.So while it may hurt you slightly, there is a good chance that if you have the following, you’re fine:Good grades.Consistency in your performance.Decent personal statements.Admissions committees are not throwing out students who have dropped a class by automation.Join the student body.Nobody runs for the student body president or any of the cabinet positions. These are deceivingly powerful positions that follow an intense structure and provide you leadership experience you didn’t know you wanted.I joined my Associated Student Union’s cabinet the last year I was at community college. I got to travel to leadership conferences in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, and Chicago. It was paid for, which was a plus for a poor college student. We would get to interact and meet with other student body representatives across many community colleges. It was also a great place to learn about the way the money flows through the bureaucratic process of our education system. You become a check on the system and a voice that helps the governing process.We got to fly around the country, vote on things that clubs in the school wanted to do, and get a taste for leadership. We also got offices, which was never something to complain about.In college applications, it definitely stands out. You’re representing tens of thousands of students. Your cabinet position is limited to only one person every academic year.Our Student Union president didn’t have the best grades but he got into Berkeley’s business program, which is one of the greatest undergraduate business programs in the entire world.Set yourself apart by doing something nobody else can do.We can argue all day, but the best indicator of acceptance is the grade point average plus good personal statements.I would place more emphasis on the former, too. While personal statements can wow a committee, banking on a stellar writing sample is a poor strategy for acceptance.The first reason for this is obvious: If you’ve been struggling as a transfer to maintain good grades in community college, then you will truly begin to feel the pain at UCLA, Berkeley, or USC. These schools are hypercompetitive, especially in the sciences, and will not fail to neglect students that fall behind.The quota system for grades is a great example of this. Here is an expected outcome for a mathematics course at Berkeley:You’ll be looking at upper-division courses with incredibly bright students where you can expect anywhere from 10–25% of the class to fail.This won’t be a problem with all majors. Majors are generally not built equally and rigor is not reflected in the grade point average until you experience it yourself.But, in other cases, you might want to know beforehand.Your junior college is a scholarship oasis.I’m not including this as a digression, I’m using this to quell rumors on college costs. Students often dissuade themselves from even applying because of the price tag they see for tuition and room and board.These price tags aren’t real.For most, that cost will dilute and simplify to a middle four-digit number that is completely subsidized, per year. That means you’ll have up until a year after you graduate to pay off that loan, interest-free.You shouldn’t be shocked to know that, either. Most colleges will grant you aid on their behalf if they feel that your financial situation requires it.Here’s an exaggerated example: It costs $75,000 a year to attend Princeton. 82% of graduates are debt-free.Big schools have pretty deep pockets. Even your community college has deeper pockets than you realize. I was awarded about $10,000 in scholarships just before I transferred.You need to ask and look around as to where the scholarship details can be found. A student services center might be a good start.High School: You can start early.Just because you find yourself in high school doesn’t mean you are bound to it. I took an art history class to fulfill a credit over a summer. I ended up taking math and statistics that were far more interesting than my high school courses.I needed to take that art history class because I was in Track & Field and Cross Country. It took the place of a class I needed to graduate. I didn’t have a spot for an extra class, and I refused to take a 7 a.m. class because I used that time to get a warm-up run in before school started.Community college enrollment is not bound to a particular age. If you wish to get ahead a bit earlier, you can choose to enroll in it as a sophomore or junior. That way, you can get a head start on your general breadth requirements. You could even find yourself applying to the trifecta a year earlier. Or, you could use that time to figure out what you really enjoy learning. Either way, you’ll be ahead and can plan accordingly.
What did students have to do in high school to get into the Ivy League or other prestigious universities?
I was accepted to 11 Ivy League or similarly selective schools in the spring of 2015. It is difficult to assure that you get into an Ivy League, and there are many factors of the process that you cannot control (ethnicity, parents' incomes and education backgrounds, school attended, and geographic location). However, the best you can do to get into a competitive university is to demonstrate academic excellence, leadership ability, recognition, uniqueness, passion, niche, dedication, character, and poise.Academic ExcellenceAcademic excellence acts as the preliminary qualification. The schools need to ensure that you are able to handle an academically rigorous environment. Although a solid academic background demonstrated through SAT scores, subject test scores, AP/IB scores, rank, course rigor, GPA, school caliber, and essays allows you to compete with other applicants at the Ivy League schools, you will need more than just mere academic qualifications. Please remember that the Ivy Leagues vary greatly in their rigor and the average academic competence of their admitted students. Some schools may allow a lower score to be more easily overlooked.SAT Score: Most people whom I have met who were admitted to the Ivy League schools, or similar institutions, had a 2150 or better (though some do have lower), and of course, a better score makes you more competitive. Additionally, you do not want to balance out a score by scoring exceptionally high in one or two categories and relatively low in another. Some schools allow for super-scoring, where you take the highest you scored in each category and combine it for your reported SAT score, while some prohibit it. Therefore, take the SAT enough times to feel secure with reporting your highest score in one sitting or your super-score.Subject Tests: Most selective universities require two SAT Subject Tests. There is a debate on the importance of the subject tests with some arguing they help to separate the best students more accurately while others believe they do little more than assure the universities. Irrespective, the Subject Tests should demonstrate your competence in the subjects that you show passion for in your application (math, literature, science, etc.). Moreover, they seem to value versatility as some schools require that you do not take both subject tests in the same general subject. Although all students should strive to perform well on the subject test (which I considered to be in the top 10%), engineering students, in particular, should shore well as the subject tests are typically limited to a science and a math indicating that engineering schools are particularly interested in the subject tests.AP/IB Score: These scores are frequently stated to be of no concern to the colleges for admissions purposes, and students often do not provide documents to validate the claims of their scores. Nevertheless, taking these college like tests, and classes, demonstrates a favorable academic maturity. Of course, you want to score a 4 or 5 (with particular emphasis on the 5) on AP exams, but more for credit than admissions.Rank/GPA: Your GPA needs to be high. Students with a 3.9 or above have greater than average chances of being admitted at nearly all schools, and your rank should be in the top 10% to have average probability or greater than average probability of being admitted. At more competitive high schools, it is acceptable for your rank to be closer to 10% than 1%, but at less rigorous schools it would be expected that you are much closer to the actual top.Course Work: At any school, you want to take as many AP/IB courses as you can to demonstrate your ability to handle college level work. Clearly, the more college level courses you take and do well in, the stronger your academic background. However, do not take so many that you are receiving lower grades. You really want to strive for an "A" in all classes.Essays: The essays you write for admissions are not going to remedy mediocre grades and test scores, but you do not want to submit essays that are difficult to understand or demonstrate a poor, misinformed understanding of the world. The grammar and spelling should not belie your otherwise erudite presentation.LeadershipElite colleges want you to demonstrate some amount of leadership so that they know you will do more for the college than sit silently in the back, study, and stay in the dorm. Moreover, they need to see potential for you to take initiative and contribute without others needing to tell you what to do. Leadership is best represented through your extra-curricular sheet, essays, and teacher recommendations.Extra-Curricular Sheet: Being a team captain or president of a club/ student are great ways to demonstrate that you have leadership; be sure to mention your position and years held. However, not all leadership positions involve directly leading others. Some leadership can be demonstrated by being the first to start an extra-curricular, or pursuing an extra curricular that is not well known and has no defined path.Essays: Essays are to elaborate on the leadership and boldness that you displayed in your extra-curriculars, or leadership demonstrated elsewhere. For instance, you may note how you pressured your school to expand a class, or how you petitioned your city for a change in laws. Perhaps you have led a movement and want to talk about. If you pursued a path that is unpaved, talk about how you paved it. Moreover, if you are involved in a leadership position that many hold, such as president of Key Club, you need to say why you are different. What is it that distinguishes you from all other presidents. Did you expand the program exponentially; did you dramatically increase funding; did you take a leadership role in the national club that is not noted elsewhere? You do not have to write about your leadership role for the Common App essay if you believe there is something better to talk about, but the question of how you are a leader will likely come up in the supplements.Recommendations: Your teachers need to state that you demonstrate leadership in the classroom through your thoughts and actions. They need to tell the colleges that you are not just a good student who works hard, but that you are also a person who starts discussions, leads projects, and brings new solutions or ideas to the table.RecognitionIt does not hurt to be recognized for your accomplishments at a national or state level, particularly if your extra-curricular engagements are more standard. There is a section on the application that asks you for any awards that you have been given. This is the place to mention your place at the Scripps Spelling Bee, your USAMO (or IMO) qualification, your research paper's accolades, your win at the National Hall of Fame, performance at Carnegie Hall etc. You may also mention NHS, AP Scholar, and other awards, but please be aware that they are so common that they will likely do little to boost your chance of admission. Be aware that many students will have no extremely impressive recognition to their names when applying.Uniqueness/NicheSelective colleges need to see that you are either a very unique individual, one that they do not see very often, or that you fit a specific niche to contribute to the campus. Your essays, extra-curricular sheet, and factors you cannot control will demonstrate whether you are unique or fill a particular niche. The uniqueness can be seen by writing about topics or ideas that few other applicants will, sharing experiences that are uncommon to other students applying, being an underrepresented background, participating in a rare extracurricular, or being well-known/connected. To fill a niche such as football player, literary magazine editor, or dancer, you need to demonstrate that you are among the most competent in that area. The admissions needs to see that once you arrive on campus, you will certainly fill positions needed by the university. In your extra-curricular sheet, you need to specify which extra-curricular positions you wish to continue in college so that they know where you fit in. You may also state this in the essays that ask why you wish to go to school X by stating you are intrigued by its strong participation in ______, or its rapidly emerging _______.Passion/DedicationYour application as a whole should demonstrate that you are truly passionate about something and dedicated to it. This shows the colleges that not only do you have something to contribute to the college, but the world. If you are passionate about feminism, you want to write an essay on it, be involved in the movement, show your interest in the questions that seem arbitrary (What is your favorite Youtube channel?). The same goes with teaching, mathematics, and any other passion. Moreover, your application should show that you have been dedicated to this particular interest for a while and not something you dreamed up shortly before applying. Your extracurricular involvement should go years back, not months.Character/PoiseOften overlooked, you need to show that you have strong character and poise throughout the process in your recommendations, essays, and interviews. If your teacher/counselor writes that you have consistently bordered and crossed the line of academic honesty and human decency, your chances of admission will be lowered. Similarly, if your essays come off as arrogant, dismissive, or blissfully ignorant, you will not be looked upon favorably. If your interviewer confirms what your counselor, teachers, and essays all indicated about your poor character, your chance of admission will be severely damaged. People with low integrity or emotional intelligence do not contribute to environments of academic learning, professional development, and personal enrichment. Be ambitious and passionate, but humble in your thoughts and words. Do not make others hate you as too many bad impressions will reduce your likelihood for success on any college campus.You may follow all the guidelines that I have set out, and still not get in to an Ivy League. There are plenty of amazing and qualified people who are overlooked for reasons that are not apparent. Moreover, almost no one who applies can truthfully say that they fully meet all of these standards (I know that I did not). However, you want to be well described by most of these guidelines and demonstrate it on your essays (this is perhaps the largest error I have seen on the applications of those not admitted).Best of success!