Whether I’m leading a workshop on navigating the college admissions process or getting stopped in the frozen food aisle at the supermarket, here are some of the most common questions parents ask.
1. The easy A:
Is it better to take a lower-level class and get an “A” or struggle somewhat in a higher level and be thankful for a “B”?
A: The snarky party-line from college admissions officials is, “It is better to get the A in the higher-level course.” Rigor of coursework is scrutinized and is almost universally considered the single biggest factor in the admissions decision-making process.
Most colleges would rather see a student stretch academically by taking a more demanding class than cruise through lower-level courses.
As students enter their second semester, they will be asked to select their courses for next year. Be sure to keep in mind what a college “recommends” and what it “requires” as far as course distribution. This information can be found on most college websites and in many college guidebooks.
As an example: the University of South Carolina requires a minimum of three science classes of which three must be lab sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, or upper-level courses requiring a lower-level course as a pre-requisite). Davidson College “recommends” four years of a foreign language; that means that if Davidson is on your junior’s list, they really expect that students will continue with Spanish in their senior year. Dropping core classes like foreign languages and science is not looked upon well by the more selective schools.
2. Testing strategies:
My son didn’t do well on the PSAT and has had some tutoring. How many times should a student take the SAT? Do colleges get upset when students take them too many times?
A: Students generally begin taking the SAT in the winter or spring of their junior year. All juniors should have just received their PSAT scores from the October test. In addition to acting as a benchmark score, the PSAT serves as the qualifying exam for the National Merit Scholarship competition.
Taking the SAT or ACT three times is usually sufficient. Colleges process their applications differently, so many schools may not see how many times a student has taken any of the tests. However, there is a point of diminishing returns for students when taking the SATs. If a student has studied and/or had test prep and has not significantly improved, more tutoring might not have much of an impact. Parents need to remember that taking the SAT is not fun and can make many students anxious, especially if there is a history of less-than-stellar test-taking performance.
3. Making time for campus visits:
It is really hard for us to get away for campus visits during the school year. Is it worth it to visit colleges during the summer when classes aren’t in session?
A: Definitely. Colleges offer campus tours and information sessions all summer. The campus might not be buzzing with political demonstrations or humming with students studying in the library, but you and your student will still get a better feel for the college than any glossy brochure or website can provide. You’ll be able to walk away with a good sense of the physical look and feel of the campus, and if you ask targeted questions, you’ll also learn about the softer side of college life from the tour guide. A visit will also provide dedicated time for you and your student to compare notes and debrief.
I encourage all families to begin senior year with a final list of colleges. Since visiting every college on the list is often not feasible, I recommend focusing campus visits on reach and target schools in the spring and summer. Seniors should visit safety schools, only if necessary, in the spring when a final decision needs to be made.
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte: