college admissions

Your Kid’s College Admissions Story is Being Written Right Now

Your college prep student’s story will soon be read by a college admission officer.


What are college admissions people looking for in an applicant? While you might be able to find lists like “The Top 10 Things Colleges Look For,” most of these simply expand on a much smaller number: THREE. But these three are extremely important. In fact, “It Takes All Three!” has become a rallying cry for our students – because each of the three is vital to a successful college admissions resume.

Your college prep student’s story is still being written, to be read someday by a college admission officer. Here are the three key chapters of the story and what you, the College Prep Parent, can do to help your student write each “chapter” with excellence.

1. Grades

Grades, and the classes they represent, are the first chapter in the “college admissions story.” Of course, grades are reflected in a student’s overall GPA – but the individual grades, and the course experiences they each represent, tell an enrollment office much more than just a numerical average of all classes. Each grade answers questions like,

  • What classes were chosen?
  • Were those classes especially rigorous: Honors, Advanced Placement, etc.?
  • Was the course required for graduation, or an “elective”?
  • Do electives indicate specific areas of interest?
  • What trends do a student’s grades indicate? Areas of strength? Weakness? Improvement? Grit?

Admission personnel strive to understand a student’s performance in relation to the culture of their high school. That is why a good high school profile, a counselor report, and school visits by the college reps can be so important – because they put an applicant’s grades in the proper context.

Low grades tell part of this story, too, but they don’t doom a student to a “bad chapter” in this area. How a student responds to low grades determines if this becomes a good chapter (or not) as college admissions workers take a look.

Help Write the College Admissions Story (Action Step):

At the start of each semester, review with your student a copy of their actual transcript. Celebrate high points and low points, “victories” and “challenges.” Seeing the growing “chapter” in black-and-white helps your kid remember that this part of their high school story is still being written, but also that some parts of this chapter have been finalized.

2. Test Scores

Since high schools assign grades in different ways, admission counselors know that grades may not give a complete picture of a student’s academic ability. Test scores are another indication of a student’s preparedness for college, and they also help confirm the validity of a student’s high school grades. Grades from programs at different high schools are sometimes hard to compare, but a national test gives colleges a good point of comparison.

Most colleges will accept scores from either the ACT or SAT. Some schools may be “testing optional,” but most colleges want to see testing results. If you are a College Prep Parent who is coaching your kid, keep in mind:

  • Spring of the junior year is when serious testing should occur
  • Taking the ACT and SAT to see which the student prefers is a good strategy (read more about choosing a test)
  • If weaknesses are being addressed between testing attempts, retaking a test is a good idea
  • Be sure to have scores sent to colleges before admission and scholarship deadlines
  • Know the testing policies of the intended colleges. Is the optional writing portion of the ACT required by the college? Do they “superscore” (using the best sub-test scores taken on different days to reach a composite)?
  • Is your kid taking advantage of test prep opportunities? Both ACT and SAT have extensive online practice material that can get them started in the right direction. Paid tutoring or training options are also available.

Help Write the College Admissions Story (Action Step):

Both you and your student should sign up for SAT’s Daily Practice Question app! Each of you can try it on your own, then compare notes. You will help instill a useful habit, and it can be just as fun as it is humbling! Download the app here.

3. Extracurricular Activities

“Extracurricular” means those things that happen outside of class. This could include performance activities, employment, church involvement, volunteer service, athletics, hobbies, or whatever else your kid does besides going to class. It is this component of their story that can “introduce” your child as someone who is ready to make their own unique contribution to a college community. No matter the form, a list of extracurricular activities should add depth and “plot” to the story. Keeping the following in mind will make for an especially strong chapter:

  • The things most important to the student need to be obvious.
  • Like it or not, the list of extracurriculars indicates how your student uses their time.
  • Roles involving leadership or commitment always stand out.
  • The time and the frequency of activities must be clear.
  • When in doubt, share “quality” over “quantity.”

Help Write the College Admissions Story (Action Step):

As your student is compiling their own list of extracurricular involvements, you can compose an informal resume of your kid as well. Write down the activities, roles, accomplishments, and associations of your child that you feel are descriptive of this person that you know so well. Include the things that you feel are impressive about your student and not just the things that your child would say.

Then compare notes! Are there major differences? Have you thought of areas that your son or daughter needs to include in their college admissions application or college resume? This exercise can be very helpful to a student. It can help them realize that their college prep story may be read by people who share your (their parent’s) perspective. Sometimes our kids just need to trust us about how impressive they are!

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