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Preparing for College

Getting Into College

Two groups of individuals are associated with filling freshman college classes. One group consists of the schools' admissions personnel who are given the difficult responsibility of selecting students for their schools' incoming class who are bright, self-confident high achievers and energetic learners. The other group consists of the large applicant pool of high school seniors who seek admission into colleges of their choice. Each group has a perspective of its own. This section will focus on the issues that will influence your achieving the educational goal you seek and how you can best facilitate your chances for getting accepted by one or more appropriate schools.

Admission Considerations

It is important to recognize that your acceptance will depend not only on your credentials and applications, but also on how intense the competition is for admission to the particular institutions. Some have a one out of two acceptance ratio, while others have only one out of five or more.

There are several important areas relative to your application for admission to college. These are: academic profile, essay (personal statement), extracurricular activities, and the interview. Each of these areas will be discussed separately. It should be clearly realized that some issues that impact upon admission potential are outside of your control. These include the number of applicants, your high school's reputation, and the section of the country you come from.

Academic Profile

This consists of a number of components that in composite provide a picture of your educational accomplishments and thus may indicate possible future academic potential. These three items are: courses completed and their grades, standardized test scores, and class rank. Colleges seek students who are capable of successfully meeting the challenge that their curriculum presents, as well as other significant factors. It should be noted that the first item of interest is the content and quality of the student's record. Subsequently, each school follows its own procedure for screening applicants.

Your Transcript

This document provides a list of courses taken in the past, or presently, and the grades assigned to those you have completed. The two elements, courses and grades, provide a picture of your effort and achievement and need to be carefully interpreted in order to draw the appropriate conclusion about your future potential. This information is a key ingredient in the college admission assessment process. However, the nature of your transcript is not taken at face value.

While a predominance of As on your record is obviously very desirable, it is clear that what is especially impressive are those grades in challenging courses that have been completed. Taking such courses and achieving superior grades in them is the best recipe for making a favorable impression on admissions personnel. Your choice of courses is therefore a significant factor in setting the “tone” of your transcript. Most schools offer such honors work as Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Where this is the case, admissionscommittees would expect you to enroll in several of these, preferably balanced between the sciences and nonsciences. Admissions personnel, based on their school site visits and experience with prior applicants, have a reasonably good perspective of a school's course offerings; thus they are likely aware of the essay and difficult courses that appear on your transcript.

In viewing your transcript the admission personnel's search for trends is a standard approach. Special attention is frequently given to your most recent level of performance, namely your junior and lower senior year grades. Also, the consistent direction of the level of your work is a significant factor. Consistent superior work over the years, or a marked upward trend from a mediocre start, can prove helpful in advancing your case toward the acceptance goal.

Standardized Tests

High schools vary in size, character, and the quality of their education. The use of standardized tests “levels the playing field,” because it provides for uniformity in judging performance. It therefore makes it possible for candidates who come from different high schools to be compared in an objective manner. Consequently, a more reliable comparative assessment can be made between candidates for admission.

There is a consensus among admissions officers that the combination of both transcript and standardized test scores is a better predictor of performance than the use of the transcript by itself. Because of this enhanced predictive value, most colleges mandate taking either the SAT or ACT as a prerequisite for applying for admission. Some require specific achievement tests.

Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT)

This standardized exam measures verbal and mathematical reasoning abilities that are relevant to college performance. The verbal section will emphasize critical reading, while the math section will require students to produce some of their own results (with the aid of a calculator). There is also a standard written English test that reflects your familiarity with its usage.

A copy of your scores is sent to you and each college specified on your application. The scale for the verbal and math tests is 200–800 and the written component has a 20–80 scale. In addition, the College Board provides you with several percentile rankings. These will indicate how your scores compare with: (1) all other high school students; (2) other college-bound students; and (3) students in your state who attend high school.

American College Testing Program Assessment (ACT)

This test is required for admission to many schools in some parts of the country. It consists of English, mathematics, reading, and science reasoning components.

Scoring on this exam involves separate subtest scores in the I–56 range and a composite score, representing the average of the four subtests. Scores are also provided for specific content areas within English, math, and reading.

Achievement Tests

These are also sponsored by the College Board and they measure knowledge in specific subjects. They are curriculum-based and intended to assess outcomes of courses that you have recently completed. Therefore, if you are aware of the achievement tests you will need to take, it is best to do so as soon as possible after you have completed those subjects. By this means you can maximize your performance, since your knowledge base in the subject will be optimal.

Role of the Test Scores

The impact of your scores on your admission chances varies widely and is dependent on the particular school's admissions policy. Larger institutions place considerable weight on the results of standardized tests. In general, the scores are commonly considered in the context of the student's transcript. While the test scores may be indicators of academic ability, their validation is determined by whether the scores are consistent with one's grade point average in high school. A wide discrepancy between the two will raise concerns (see Table 2.1 below).

Test Scores H.S. Average Impact
High High Confirmatory
Low High Requires evaluation
Average Average Confirmatory
High Low Requires evaluation
Low Low Confirmatory

Another factor that needs to be kept in mind is that the more your score is close to the college's median, the less significant role it will have. If there is a meaningful deviation from the median, however, this will catch the attention of the admissions officers. Depending on the direction and how extreme the deviation is, its impact upon your admission chances will be positive or negative.

If you are not satisfied with your performance and you feel that you can do significantly better, then (and only then) is it advisable to retake the test. To do so and not find a significant change will mean that you have merely confirmed the accuracy of your initial performance. If you decide to repeat the test, you should be aware that some schools have a policy of averaging the two scores, while others elect to count only the highest score. To retake a standardized exam more than twice is not advisable. Where your performance was negatively impacted by a major problem (such as being ill) you should call attention to such mitigating circumstances in your personal statement.

Experienced admissions officers have gained subjective perceptions of the caliber of schools that send abundant numbers of applicants for entrance to their colleges. These schools need no introduction to admissions personnel. If you are attending a small, less well-known institution, admissions personnel may need to be enlightened about the nature of your school and its program. You can try to do this briefly in your essay. If your transcript of courses does not clearly identify its character, see if you can get a guidance counselor to elaborate on it and on how demanding its program is, when he or she communicates with the college on your behalf. Finally, it should be noted that some schools have prepared their own profile to familiarize admissions officers with their program. If this is the case, make sure it is sent off with your transcript.

Class Rank

Your transcript will not only contain a list of courses, but may frequently also indicate your class rank. The value of this figure depends on whether it is “weighted or unweighted.” In the latter case, class rank is formulated without taking the difficulty of course load into consideration. In such cases, class rank is less valuable to admissions officers, unless there are several students from your school applying and each is taking courses that are equally challenging. A weighted rank provides a more meaningful appraisal, since more difficult courses are given greater weight than others. Schools thatcite weighted rank usually use ranking guidelines adopted by the professional organization of school principals, registrars, and admissions officers. Where the school has its own ranking system, it will describe it in its profile.

There are schools that use modified ranking systems. They do not provide a specific rank; rather, students are placed into levels based on parameters, such as, for example, deciles, or divided into 10 groups of equal size. Thus, a student in the second decile falls in between the 10th and 20th percentile. Similarly, a quintile (five-part) or quartile (four-part) system can be used to define rank.

Some academically highly competitive or small high schools elect not to rank their students. In such cases, admissions officers will seek to compare grades with other members of the class from the same school.

Finally, it needs to be emphasized that rank per se is but one item on the transcript. It does not define the quality of your high school academic accomplishments; it is merely an indicator and not a decisive one at that. It fails, for example, to identify the direction of your progress, namely, if it was consistent or erratic; if it is progressing or faltering. These are important issues, where a prolonged effort and strong determination to succeed are vital, as is the case when choosing medicine as a career.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesGuide to Medical & Dental SchoolsPreparing for College - High School: An Overview, Program Of High School Studies, Evaluating A College, Selecting A College