College Part 3.1 - Helping your child get admitted to the college of their dreams; GPA and SAT

Choosing a specific college is a decision that can be postponed for kids and parents until high school.  However, the groundwork for getting into college is something we can all start working on now.  There are many articles available online about admissions to specific schools like Harvard or Yale.  They will tell you what the admissions office looks for.  Here we will try to help plan on how to build that "application" from an early age.

Colleges can be divided roughly into 3 categories, 1) Less Selective (Open Admission), 2) Selective and 3) Highly Selective.  We will mainly focus on Selective and Highly Selective since admissions to a Less Selective school does not require as much planning.

In researching this article it soon became clear that Part 3 would need to be broken down into several separate articles given the number of points a college may consider for our kid's applications (this one is Part 3.1).  Below is a list to give you some idea of what admissions professionals will/might look at when evaluating your son or daughter.  This list may grow by the time I finish writing the other articles. 
  • Grades
  • SAT scores (alternatives) *
  • Sports
  • Student council
  • Clubs
  • Jobs
  • Letters of Recommendation
  • Projects
  • Essay
  • Interview
  • Alumni in family (parents or siblings)
  • Donations
  • Special skills
  • Musical Instruments
  • Experiences
  • Disability
  • Minority
  • Advanced Placement Courses
  • Appearance
  • Facebook
  • Other...

The list above is not in any particular order however the top 2 (Grades and SAT scores) do actually mean the most.  College admissions (regardless of how selective they are or are not) will look at our kid's GPA and SAT scores first.  Without a minimum score in both categories the rest of the requirements above become meaningless.

Our kid's GPA for a non-selective school needs to be a minimum of 2.0 (a C).  At the more selective schools the minimum rises to 2.5 or 3.0 and at the highly selective schools it can be difficult to pass the initial screening without a 4.0 or very close to it.  All GPAs are not created equal though.  A 3.5 from a well known and prestigious high school will be better than a 3.8 from a school with a lower reputation.  Scoring high marks on classes that are considered college level will also add weight to a GPA.  Most high schools will offer AP or advanced placement classes to their students.  These courses are great for impressing admissions as they offer some indication as to how the students will do in real college level classes.  Therefore, getting a C in an advanced placement course can actually be a negative on a student's application even if it would translate into an A in a regular high school course.  If your kids are up to taking an AP course, make sure they know they need to get a good grade in it as well.

Grade trends are looked at carefully as well. A 4.0, 3.8, 3.5 and 3.2 in consecutive years of high school results in a respectable 3.6 GPA.  However, looking at the trend, this student is headed for a B average or lower in college if he or she continues to slide.  Admissions knows this and will select It is much better to finish strong with the higher grades at the end of high school.  As parents we should not wait until junior year of high school to start talking about college.  We should sit down with our kids the first day of high school and talk through the goals for the next 4 years (Be your kid's career coach). Let them know that grades will be important and that they will need to make an effort right up to the last day of senior year.

College admissions will not normally look at anything that happened (grades anyway) before high school.  So if your 10 year old son is consistently getting "Needs to work on" grades when it comes to essay writing it is not the end of the world or of your ambitions for him.  However, how to study and concentrate are both habits that can be developed.  It is not easy for our daughters to suddenly become master students at the age of 14 or 15 when for the last 8 years they have been slacking.  As parents, we need to focus on helping them to build these basic habits early on so that they can rely on them when needed.  Additionally, elementary school is where our kids will learn the underlying facts (2+2=4) and skills (writing, typing, etc) that will be the building blocks for all of their high school classes.  While the grades are not as important at this level, actually learning the material is critical.

The other necessary number for any college application is the SAT score.  The score can range from 0 to 800 for each of the 3 sections of the test (reading, writing and arithmetic).  The SAT is a standardized test which means that every kid will take the exact same test on the same day.  The College Board website which is the organization that manages the SAT testing, shows the percentile rankings for the actual test score.  For example, a perfect score on the test puts your son or daughter into the 99th percentile which means that he or she scored higher than 99% of all other test takers for that test.  Along with a good GPA this also guarantees that they will pass the first step of admissions screening.  Here are a few examples from well known schools and their SAT requirements:

92nd percentile
88th percentile
88th percentile
San Diego State 
36th percentile

Once in high school our kids can make the best use of their SAT preparation time taking practice tests.  But at 7 years old it might be a little early to force them through a full exam.  There are some basics though that will come in handy.

The Reading section tests for vocabulary (known and through context) and reading comprehension (reading between the lines).  For younger kids, this can best be approached through reading to and with them. When confronted with a new word, ask your son what he thinks it means.  The challenge of figuring it out from the context is part of the what the SAT tests and after learning the new word he will have one more in his repertoire.  Then, at the end of the book, ask what he thinks the author wanted to say.  Perhaps the author was trying to show that sharing is a good thing.  Whatever the answer, it is good practice for the kids to think beyond just the words on the page.

The Mathematics section is more fact driven and getting the basics down early on will help the most.  For the kids who still struggle with multiplication tables or long division, the more complex problems on the SAT will be challenge.  Since the test is timed, speed is an issue so running the occasional drill with your daughter and timing her on how fast she can finish 20 math problems is good practice.  Throw some word problems in as well since the SAT uses multi-step questions.  For high school students, an AP class in math will give them an edge. 

Writing was added in 2005 (I only had to take reading and math). At present, many colleges are not requiring this section of the test.  Most likely because they ask for an essay as part of the application anyway.  However, it does not hurt to cover some of the areas that the writing section claims to test on; word choice and grammar.  With younger kids, again, reading is a great and relatively painless way of helping them to improve.  Under the assumption that what you read to them is considered well written, they will pick up new words as well as a feel for sentence structure.  As they get a little older it is often recommended that kids take up journal writing.  A family vacation can be a good time to start. We had a family journal on a trip to Guam one year and each of us took a day to write something.  This approach made it less like homework for my son and we came home with a nice souvenir from the trip.

* In order to save myself the hassle of typing "SAT, ACT, and others" I use "SAT" to cover all accepted standardized tests of the same caliber.  While the SAT and ACT are ubiquitous in the United States, there are some other acceptable tests from other countries.