College For Mom Dummies: Adventures in Getting Kids out of High School and onto College

Someone asked me the other day how my daughter got accepted to her dream school, one that’s considered ‘more selective’ by those college ranking gurus.

More specifically, this person wanted to know how a quiet girl from Mount Si High School, in the little Snoqualmie Valley, got noticed by this university thousands of miles away.

It got me thinking. How did that happen? I mean besides mustering the guts to actually apply, did she do something different than other kids?

Is there some magic secret to getting into a college with that ‘more selective’ notation (polite way of say a 30% acceptance rate) alongside its name?

The simple answer is no. Just like all the ‘Getting into College’ articles out there – it’s about the kid and finding the right fit.

So for those of you who also have a child with big college dream ms, I’ll share some of what I learned as I tagged along for the admissions ride with my big dreaming daughter.

1)  Know your Kid, Their Aspirations

I have four kids, all of whom are very different, yet in some ways very much alike.

My first Mount Si graduate LOVED high school. In fact, she probably loved it too much. It gave her what I like to call ‘high school goggles.’  She was so wrapped up in high school that she didn’t even think about college until it was application deadline time.

She is a very smart girl, but didn’t put forth her best effort for nearly two years of high school. In the end, she got into a good state school and is now thriving. It all worked out, but in her case, she kind of fell into college.

I’ll describe my second child as tolerating high school. Where her sister loved it, she tolerated it – like a stepping stone to college. She and her sister are both ‘scholastically inclined,’ but when it came to applying themselves in high school, they were a world apart.

Daughter #2 started talking about what she wanted to pursue in college when she was about 15. She knew what schools offered the top programs for that pursuit – most were ‘more selective’ universities far from home.

I was following her lead (and playing catch up) when it came to the whole college admissions game. I couldn’t live in denial. Daughter #2 was not going to fall into college. It was going to be a well-planned pursuit of her future – and I was riding shotgun as the newbie, part-time college counselor.

Note: For TV watchers, here’s a Modern Family reference. When it comes to my girls and high school, one was little more Haley and one a little more Alex.

2)  Know the Transcript Needed for the Desired University

Back in middle school, both of my girls were put on the district’s ‘high track’ for many classes, including a big one in college admissions land – math, which means they took algebra by 8th grade.

For daughter #2, staying on that track in high school would help her compile the transcript needed to apply to the colleges she was dreaming of attending – infused with some ‘kicking it up a notch’ (code for AP classes).

In 9th grade she took honors core classes, started learning a foreign language and then added an AP class (world history) by sophomore year. By junior year she added two AP classes (LA and U.S. history), took pre-calculus (possible because she took algebra in 8th grade), kept tackling spanish and tolerated chemistry (not a science girl).

Note: She actually tried to drop AP English at the start of junior year, but the school required her to stick with the schedule she chose. It turned out to be her favorite class and the teacher who would inspire her.

3)  Senior Year Matters… A LOT

Senior year can be a college admissions deal-maker. Daughter #2 took four AP classes. Now, before you get judgey and think, “Who would do that to their child,” know this was a mutual decision; was not taken lightly; and she’s capable of taking these courses. (Refer to #1 above.)

Here’s the important thing we knew based on her college aspirations: she would need to take a 4th year of core subjects – even if some weren’t required for high school graduation.  The colleges she wanted to attend would expect this.

At Mount Si, in order to get a rigorous 4th year of many core subjects, AP courses are the only option. There is not a 12th grade honors Language Arts class, so it’s AP or regular Language Arts. To get a 4th year of Spanish, AP was her only choice. Getting a full-year, traditional history course required taking an AP social studies class, European History.

AP Calculus was her toughest decision. Nationally, calculus is considered one of the hardest high school courses. She was apprehensive, but because she hated science and was NOT going to take a 4th year of it, she bit the bullet and took calculus for her transcript.

Note: Calculus has nothing to do with her future college major, but we decided if she was going to actually get into her desired college, taking this challenging course would give her a very well-rounded transcript –  and could be the thing that set her apart from other applicants.

4)  The Grades Do Matter

Yes, taking rigorous classes is part of the process for these ‘more selective’ colleges, but when it comes down to it… well, the student also has to put in the effort and do well.

The stats of recently admitted college classes don’t lie. At daughter #2’s dream school, the kids admitted took rigorous high school classes and had an A- overall GPA average.

Note: Calculus brought her GPA down some, but she doesn’t regret taking it [now] and she was lucky to have a great teacher to help with the struggles. PLUS, if she passes the AP exam, she looks forward to not taking math in college.

5)  SAT Scores Also Matter

We all know standardized test results do not define the overall intelligence of students. Test taking is hard and some are just better at it than others. That’s why SAT Prep classes exist. My daughter has friends who took these classes. She did not.

SAT (or ACT) scores don’t define the college applicant, but they definitely help paint a picture of what’s acceptable for a particular college. Knowing the average SAT scores of students admitted to the college your child wants to attend is a good planning tool – and this information is readily available in a quick google search.

Note: Before my daughter took the SAT, she knew the average results for students admitted to her dream school. She was prepared to retake the SAT if needed. She ended up scoring within the needed range and decided once was enough for a that grueling (and dreaded) 5-hour test. She had no desire to take the ACT.

6)  Extra Curricular Activities Aren’t Always Sports or Music – and that’s Ok

Not every kid is the captain of a sports team. I think this was a big worry for daughter #2: having enough extra curricular activities for her college transcript. She was worried the strangers who determined if she was the type of student they wanted wouldn’t think she was well-rounded.

Sports weren’t her thing. She didn’t sing and play the piano like her best friend. But we learned that extra curricular activities can be many things – and can fall outside the box.

Why not? We are all different, with varying strengths and interests. Extra curricular activities can reflect this.

Daughter #2 volunteered at the YMCA. She worked after school all four years of high school. She turned her obsession with TV into a small internet business. It never made money, but she learned how to set up a business and website. She traveled and worked trade shows with her father. We took the things she liked (money, TV and writing) and figured out how to transform them into those infamous ‘extra curriculars.’

Note: Extra curruiculars can also help tell a student’s story in those ever-popular college admissions essays – the part of the process where they get to really express who they are and what they want to do.

College Road Wrap Up

My girls walked very different paths – both in high school and during the college admissions process. I learned a lot from both of them as I tagged along for the ride. I believe they both picked the right paths, with the right fit.

My kids are all different. I don’t expect them to know what they want to do for the rest of their lives by the time they are 18. My oldest didn’t. She’s figuring that out at college and is loving the experience.

Yet, somehow I gave birth to a child that seems to know exactly what she wants to do. That child pushed me outside of my comfort zone, forcing me to learn things in order to help her chase her dreams.

That’s what we do as moms sometimes – hitch a ride in the passenger seat, reaching over to gently turn the steering wheel when needed….or maybe even slamming on the brakes when they don’t see the stop sign.

College is about finding the right fit for each kid – selective or not, close to home or far away. It doesn’t matter what high school they attended or where it’s located. What your child chooses to do at their high school is the important piece.

Anything IS Possible

Two years ago, someone said to my daughter after learning about her dream college: “You know you can’t go there. You can’t afford it.”

We countered and encouraged, said to keep dreaming and work hard – anything is possible. She forged ahead.

Two weeks ago, daughter #2 excitedly called to tell me the dream school (and the elusive dream program within that dream school) had accepted her.

We cried a little (we’re girls after all) because anything actually was possible. It was more than just a cliche parenting statement.

Next step: More hard work. Like learning the ins and outs of scholarships and financial aid. By the time college rolls around for child 3 and child 4…. maybe then I’ll finally have it all figured out.

Good Luck. Dream Big. The world is a big place worth exploring – no matter what the path.

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  • excellent article Danna – I’m going to review with my 12 y.o. son to ensure he has a real world perception of how to approach his future, and what is needed for success. It’s tough that we’re needing to groom them for this so early in their lives, but to ingrain a good to great work ethic earlier rather than later ensures future success. Thx!

    1. Thanks, Diana! Very helpful and inspiring article. My son is a junior at Mt Si, and knows where he wants to go and what he wants to be, but we still have to travel the road and avoid the potholes. Your article will help. Cheers!

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