Creating a Target List of Colleges

Why worry about College Prep?

I remember as a student in middle school dreaming of escaping from school and joining the real world. I couldn’t wait to be free of the confines of school. The mistake I made was drawing an analogy between school and College. The two are nothing alike. College is fun and fascinating, if challenging at times, and it’s usually crucial to your success.

Going to College will almost guarantee that you earn a higher disposable income throughout your life. There is a strong correlation between the two, as employers value College graduates more than high school graduates. Completing a College degree shows employers that you have gained more developed skills, and that you have the tenacity to get through the rigors of a degree. A College degree demonstrates higher skills and perseverance – rightly valued skills in the workforce.

Preparing for the right Major and the right College should be part of most students’ dreams of succeeding in the world. Some very successful entrepreneurs have indeed skipped going to College, but they succeeded in spite of the odds.

No Excuses! Preparation is the Key to Success. 

Oftentimes circumstances can seem to make the decisions for us. When high school ends you may not want to live far from your parents, or you may not be able to afford to go far from your parents. So your College search might seem to naturally limit itself to those Colleges/Universities within driving distance of your parents’ home, where rent will continue to be free (so long as you go to College and get good grades, right?). If you live near a great College and it is excellent in your chosen Major, this line of reasoning can be fine. Even then, continuing to live at your parents’ house will greatly reduce not only the “fun” component of going to College, but also your skills of being an independent adult. It will ensure that College is not the full and true transition from being a child in high school to being a young adult in College. Remember, going to College is part of dreaming big, and nothing should stand in the way – not even the prospect of free rent, laundry service, and home cooked meals. You’ll learn to appreciate these after you leave.

So Start Planning Early!

A big reason to start your College Prep early is that this will allow you to put circumstances to the side. They need not stand in the way of a good student with a long term plan, even one who faces financial challenges. A financially limited student with good grades and SAT/ACT scores can get a free ride (including room and board!) at the best Colleges in the country. Two of our tutors, one from Lawndale and the other from south central LA, went to MIT and to Notre Dame on full scholarships – and they graduated from a low ranked public high school in LAUSD. What made it possible? First they had to believe in themselves and dream big, and second they had to plan and work hard. They knew well that College was the ticket to a brighter future of opportunity, and they seized it. You can too.

Creating a Target List of Colleges

Last week we discussed the need to start out by dreaming big, and then by translating your dreams into the best Major for you. From your Major you would then start creating a list of your top 20 Colleges.  So far, so good? Do you have your College list ready? If so, read on. If not, go back to last week’s post and create a short list (at least 5-10 Colleges) before moving on.

Refining your List

In many ways the biggest challenge might be figuring out where to go. There are something like 4,000 Colleges in the US to choose from, never mind the many other Universities all around the world.

Take your list and create a new spreadsheet. Create the following columns: Your Personal Ranking, College Name, Average High School GPA, SAT Math score, SAT Reading score, ACT Composite score, Acceptance Rate, Visit contact details, and Notes.

After you’ve created these columns pull down a ranking from 1-20 in the Personal Ranking column (simply fill in 1 and 2 for the first two rows, select, and drag down by the bottom right corner to go from 1 to 20). Fill in your Colleges by name. Go to Princeton Review and search for each College individually. You can quickly fill in all the details from there (note that few provide Average High School GPA). When you are finished, cross reference the results with the College Board.

Now that you are done (and this will take you at least 1-2 hours), take a look at the list and see how realistic it is in relation to your expected GPA, SAT &/or ACT scores. The acceptance rate is important. Colleges with an acceptance rate of 10% or less are VERY hard to get into. The key here is to dream big but also to be a little realistic. If you work very hard and have trouble getting top grades, it’s unlikely you are going to get into a College where 86% of students who were accepted had a GPA of at least 3.75. It’s not impossible, but without something special to draw the attention of the Admissions Officer, it’s pretty unlikely. Alternatively you are getting reasonable grades now and you are in Grade 9 and (be honest with yourself) you don’t work very hard. Make the decision to work hard, and yes you can get into a highly selective College because you will raise your GPA.

The realities are that the most important variables (ranked by importance) for getting into College are:

1) GPA/ Class Rank

2) SAT/ACT score

Having passed the hurdles above:

3) Extracurricular activities

4) Your Essays

5) Teacher/Counselor Recommendations

Why are your GPA/Class rank and SAT/ACT scores above the other factors? It’s simple, many Colleges receive tens of thousands of applications (UCLA received nearly 100,000 applications!). These Colleges do not have the resources to go through every application and need quick and easy numerical filters. They can quickly whittle the pile down by filtering based on GPA and SAT/ACT scores, and that is precisely what they do. So it pays to be realistic.

Don’t get stuck on Reputation

Keep in mind that you are only applying for an Undergraduate degree. The reputation of many of the Ivy leagues depends not on their Undergraduates, but their Graduates (i.e. PhD students for the most part). If you are capable, you can go to a low ranking College where you excel at your Undergraduate degree, and then parley that into acceptance into Graduate school at an Ivy League school. I did that myself. If you decide to go to work right after your Undergraduate degree, keep in mind that only your first employer will actually pay much attention to where you went to College. By your second job, the experience of your first job will already be more important than where you went to College or what you did there! It’s most important to focus on your dreams and what you want to major in.