University admissions. Some stuff they don't tell you.
...and they don't tell you because they don't (often) KNOW to tell you.
Anyway, this is stuff I've learned at the last minute, and I hope this helps someone. May it be imputed unto us as a righteousness.
(Non-USA readers: Welcome back and just sit back with a soothing beverage, marveling at this byzantine process. Oh, and ovah heah, we often use "university" and "college" and "school" interchangeably.)
This is primarily deals with getting those whom you've offsprung into very competitive universities. Relatively few schools fall into this category, so don't sweat it in EVERY case.
Start by selecting all the conceivable, possible places your kid would like to attend. Whittle that down by scratching out the ones you dislike. Then divide the list into "Dream," "Likely," and "Safety" schools. At NOS' school, they have a computer "scattergraph" that shows you at a glance the likelihood of your child being admitted to this or that university based on grades and standardized tests. These are the things we'll look at right off the top.
If you're lucky/smart you're reading this when your kid still has 3 or so years to start thinking of this.
I cannot overemphasize how much easier everything gets with a good grade point average. If you have to go all "Simon Legree's tiger mother" do it. Do whatever you have to, short of a felony, to get your kid to study and do well.
I've discovered, in the case of boys, that video games are the Anti-Christ, the sworn blood enemy of optimal academic performance. A little video game activity AFTER schoolwork and on weekends is fine, but if your son has a 75" HD TV with PS4, XBOX and Wii and surround sound, you have a very uphill fight. (NOS has none of these, Deo gratias.)
You'll have to check to see what assignments and tests are coming up, and make sure they are completed. In NOS' case, the magic bullet was making sure he studied for tests "the day before the day before." This puts the subject matter into long term, rather than short term, memory. This is key, because your average teenage boy has the short term memory of a goldfish entering rehab.
Second, the SAT. Don't waste your time on prep courses. The SAT is, at its core, an IQ test and its answers have a "pattern." The easier it is for your kid to "spot the pattern" the more accurate his (or her, I don't discriminate) guesses are, and the higher the score. My suggestion? Find a whole mess of Official SAT Practice Tests. Have your kid take the first one WITHOUT TIMING and OPEN BOOK. You want him to see where he "guesses/answers wrong" and what the testmakers thinking is IN REAL TIME.
I cannot stress this enough.
Once your kid sees how a given test is "wired" when he comes to a question he can't answer correctly in a few seconds, he will know HOW to eliminate the other answers. I guesstimate this is worth +/-250 points.
Oh, and many top-tier schools will also ask your kid to take "SAT subject tests." I very strongly suggest your child takes a given subject test the summer immediately following having completed that course in high school. If your daughter took biology in 10th grade, that's the time to take the corresponding test. Why? Because the material is fresh in her mind and if she takes it mid-12th grade, she'll have to study a LOT for that test and her odds of doing well are nowhere near as good.
Next we come to the dreaded essay. If your child is applying to a top-tier institution, this could be worth as much as the SAT and/or grades. One Very Big Deal University admissions person told me that 95% of applicants "flat-out cannot write, of the remaining 5%, 3% can write, but just in a 'grammatically correct way' and only 2% can write both correctly and well. That 2% gets admitted pretty much regardless of grades or SAT scores."
Some douchebag unscrupulous parents will write their kid's essay for him, or worse, hire a ghostwriter. Don't. The people at the admissions office who read essays -- and most of them do nothing but read essays -- are keen spotters of the "voice" of a 12th grader...or "mutton writing as lamb" as it were. My suggestion? Have your kid write the essay WELL ahead of its due date. A week later, have him rewrite it and then you edit it. Make suggestions, check for solecisms, etc. Don't CHANGE anything, but, rather, send it back with your notes and markups. Let him change it. Repeat 2-3 or times.
The essay (and this is why the few kids who can nail it get in no matter what) has certain things it must accomplish:
1- It must address the question. ("What do you consider the most important quality in a 21st Century global citizen?" or whatever.)
2- It must be grammatically correct. (Skip the artistic license for now.)
3- It must be a very engaging read. If the reader forgets he's reading "an application essay" that's a win.
4- It must, very subliminally, underscore all of the points which the admissions office considers favorable. (More on this anon.)
5- OPTIONAL - If you wish to lay claim to one of the various demographic groups that are treated with a measure of advantage, look for an essay question (usually they have three) that has wording such as "your culture" or "heritage" or similar. The essay should subliminally touch upon one's favorable demography without beating people over the head with it. Similarly, if seriously difficulties have beset your family that can be plausibly assumed to have affected your child and his/her performance it should also be brought up subtly at this point.
After this, look over the application materials. If a given university is "on the Common app" AND they waive the application fee, apply to it...what the Hell. But be warned, about half of the top-tier schools are NOT on the Common app for a number of reasons of varying levels of reasonableness and validity. It is what it is.
When you are poring over these materials, especially from the top-tier universities, be on the lookout for the term "holistic admissions." This means "we'll let your kid in based on whether we like him/her and not on any objective criteria." Which is a positive if your child is in a desirable demographic category, not so much if not.
This is where we hit some serious turbulence. I am not here to argue in favor or against these factors in the admissions process...just to tell you what they are, how they may affect you and how you can navigate them to your child's benefit. So don't get your ideological undies in a twist.
In schools that specifically tout their "holistic admissions" sex and ethnicity matter a great deal. They will emphatically deny it, but -- and I can't tell you how I know this to be 100% true, you'll just have to trust me -- that is the case.
Female applicants in the "STEM" areas have a colossal advantage, for instance.
Most Hispanics* have an advantage over their Anglo counterparts, African-Americans have an advantage over most** Asian-Americans. It is what it is.***
In these cases, what "holistic admissions" means to applicants is (and this is a direct quote from an Ivy-league admissions type) "We want to let you in, please give us an excuse."
This doesn't mean that if your child is a WASP from a nice suburban school he has no chance; not at all. But he or she should "compensate" with the other things mentioned herein.
Another crucial factor is "interest quotient" which is not merely "how badly does this applicant want to attend this august institution?" but "How is this applicant's seriousness of interest evidenced?"
Your child should start communicating with the admissions office and any persons affiliated therewith. Some have "student ambassadors" who sit in the admissions meetings and offer whatever insight into a given applicant and, although they have no vote, their input is taken very seriously and can often sway the decision. Your child should be in email conversations with these folks, asking about student activities, internship and practical-experience opportunities, asking questions about campus life, etc., etc.
A campus visit, if at all possible, should be scheduled and followed up with email conversations.
This will be helpful also should the university in question require an interview. (The further up the top-tier you go, the likelier this will be.) In the matter of the interview, you should conduct a few mock-interview rounds with your little darling. No so much that the responses sound "canned" and rehearsed, but so that the answers are fluid and devoid of the "uh...um" and "you know" and "like." The metric for success is that the closer this comes to a conversation the better, and the more it becomes an interrogation with monosyllabic answers, the worse.
Like in the essay, this conversation should touch upon "the good stuff" as noted above and as will follow.
The last thing to shore up are the extracurriculars. Ideally (and in the case of top-tier schools, it's practically an unwritten "must") your child will have:
1- An athletic activity (croquet, baseball, whatever)
2- A community service.
3- A leadership component (this, incidentally, is NOT the same as joining the Leadership Club)
4- A personal interest (the Kite club, the Astronomy club)
Regarding items 1, 2, and 4, the more years doing this your child has, the better...especially as it shows commitment. This is key.
There can be some overlap, of course (being elected president of the croquet club, for example) and where there is no ideal activity for your kid, have him/her start one, showing both the interest and the leadership.
Lastly, if you at all have ANY "ins" at a given university, it's okay to deploy these, but NOT HEAVYHANDEDLY.
Hope this helps someone!
* Cubans are, for the purposes of university admissions, the "wrong" kind of Hispanic. In those applications listing these as multiple choice and given that 90% of Cubans have family in Spain or Latin America, I suggest ticking the box that says "Hispanic/Latino Other." ** Filipinos, for the purposes of university admissions, are the "right" kind of Asian *** Because some surnames are not obviously of a given ethnicity or someone may have one Anglo and one "ethnic" parent, it will be an OPTIONAL question on the application to state one's "ethnic self-identification."