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Raising the Bar: Higher Competition Complicates College Admissions Process

12/01/2008 1 comment

Raising the Bar: Higher Competition Complicates College Admissions Process

By Christina Edwards

December 1, 2008

High school graduation: the end of an era. A milestone transition from childhood to legal adulthood. A choice on where to go next.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics out of the US Department of Labor, 67.2 percent of high school graduates made the choice to enroll in a college or university, a choice made in increasingly large numbers; this is a jump even from the class of 2006’s 65.8 percent college enrollment.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that college enrollment has been rising since 2001, where 61.7 percent had enrolled in post-secondary education.

As these numbers rise, high school education has seen a shift towards preparation towards a more competitive college admissions climate.

Schools have seen the implementation of increasing amounts of Advanced Placement (AP) classes, SAT and ACT preparation classes, and students clamoring for leadership positions in various extracurricular activities.

This brings several questions to the forefront: can US high schools support the new climate? Is high level competition a help or a hindrance? And how, in a sea of near-perfect GPAs and test scores, does a student stand out?

High School Students: “It’ll Look Good on My Application.”

Sojung Ko, a junior at Roberson High School in Asheville, NC, is currently enrolled in four college level courses; she’s already completed one. She is heavily involved in her school’s National Honor Society, Odyssey of the Mind, and is the student government vice president.

“[The AP classes] are definitely more challenging than honors class,” says Ko. “You have to study extra hours just to make at least a B in classes. Even though I might not do well in classes, AP classes build up my endurance and dedication.”

Ko says she was advised by her brother, a class of 2008 high school graduate, to take her already required math, English, science, and history classes in AP courses; he told her to take AP statistics and environmental science this year to make room for AP calculus and physics her senior year. Her extracurriculars were also planned strategically.

“I chose National Honor society because it shows that I have been able to sustain my GPA pretty high and work hard at school,” says Ko. “I chose student government because it shows that I have leadership and is able to represent my class. Odyssey of the Mind, to able to be involved in a long-term club that competes with other schools. It shows that even with my crazy schedule, I was able to be involved in this kind of club, something more creative.”

Ko’s classmate, junior Molly Ohmen, is only currently enrolled in one AP class, but says her newspaper class, in which she is part of the editorial board, is equally preparing her for college.

“I think that newspaper will be one of the most beneficial things to put on a college application,” says Ohmen. “It helps you deal with real life obstacles like deadlines and has made me more outgoing. I also think that because I have a leadership position and that I have been so dedicated to the class that it will look good on an application.”

A small survey of honors and advanced placement high school juniors, all planning on attending a four year college or university, found 50 percent of students taking 2 AP classes their junior year; 33.3 percent planned to take six AP classes before they graduated.

All students surveyed participated in at least one extracurricular activity, with 58.3 percent participating in more than four. 41.7 percent hold at least one leadership position in an extracurricular activity. 66 percent participated in a sport.

The Two-Sided Push: School Systems and Competition

The school systems, in turn, are adjusting to the competitive climate, and perhaps facilitating the change in mentality.

In 2006, Roberson added an AP world history class; the next year psychology and English language were added, bringing the school’s total to 13 offered AP classes that teach to 15 AP tests. This is in accordance with a Buncombe county wide push for the AP program: 20 AP classes are offered among the six county high schools, and enrollment in AP classes increased by 248 students from fall 2006 to fall 2008.

Guidance counselors at the high school who speak to incoming freshman as they choose their classes recommend that students planning to attend a top university plan to take six AP classes before they graduate.  In 2003, three AP classes were recommended.

Roberson has traditionally encouraged juniors to begin taking AP classes; with the class of 2010, the school began offering an option for advanced students to take a different track of history classesthat would allow them into AP World History as sophomores.

Though the school system supports AP as effective college preparation, some teachers disagree with the push for more APs at an earlier age.

“Personally, I do not know of many, if any, sophomores in high school who could really survive a true college-level course,” Mark Harrison, an English teacher at Roberson, says.  “I think that over the years,schools have focused their attention on easing the standard levels to keep kids from failing, and thus keep them from dropping out. The schools get lots of APs and fewer drop outs, the kids get higher GPAs for doing the same work as they would have in a regular or honors class.  So it seems to work, but it just masks what is really happening… a lowering of expectations across the board.”

Harrison also teaches the communications class at Roberson, which teachers print and broadcast journalism, along with marketing and business skills. Students in the class work during and after school to produce news publications. Harrison argues that class like his, along with classes like band and chorus, make a student stand out more than an AP class would.

“If a student shows they are taking difficult classes as well as being dedicated to sports and hard, consistent classes like band and Communications, they are actually showing themselves as well-rounded, highly-educated and risk-takers, what colleges want in order to find students who stick out in a mass of thousands of students with basically all the same GPAs,” Harrison says.

How I Got to College: Current Students Speculate

Ultimately, what students, parents, teachers, and high school administration are seeking is the surefire path to the acceptance envelope. Yet differing experiences of current college students suggest the quest for a fail-proof formula may be in vein.

Kelley McClure, a sophomore majoring in graphic design at NC State University, took one AP class in high school, Studio Art. She says the class helped her build a portfolio and prepared her for college level critique, but having her design work published in a school newspaper gave her an edge.

“The people in the graphic design department here love published work,” says McClure. “It shows that I have worked with people and as a team with other staff members to create something for the community.”

McClure says she did not feel the need to take high school courses that did not necessarily interest her.

“I actually didn’t really plan my classes and other activities for college, mostly because I prefer doing things that I know I will enjoy and probably take part in later on in life,” McClure says.

Emily Srisarajivakul, a freshman at Northwestern University, argues that high school schedules dull the advantages to AP classes. She says she structured her high school class schedule and extracurriculars around building up her college application. She credits her acceptances to this, but says it did little in terms of actual preparation.

“Classes here are way more rigorous because we’re on a quarter schedule; I’m used to classes being spread out over a year,” Srisarajivakul said. “We have three months to learn everything. But I placed out of some courses, so I have more freedom to take electives.”

Inside the Admissions Office

For colleges admissions offices, the real test is in weighting the value of all of the competitive achievement.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), part of the NC system of public universities, has seen twenty percent increase in applications in the last five years.

“We don’t use formulas or cutoffs or thresholds; no one is automatically admitted or denied because of a single number. We understand that students travel many different roads to get to Carolina, and we celebrate the variety of interests, backgrounds and aspirations that they bring with them,” says Ashley T. Memory, senior assistant director of undergraduate admissions at UNC.

UNC emphasizes well-rounded academic excellence, and uses extracurriculars, admissions essays, and test scores to further assess students.

“We pay particular attention to the rigor of each candidate’s course of study. We encourage juniors and seniors, when possible, to take the most difficult programs available at their school.  If AP, IB, or Honors classes are available, we encourage students to take these classes,” said Memory.

Elon University, a NC private university, uses test score cutoffs to reduce its applicant pool, in addition to weighing academic performance and difficulty of coursework, according to Greg Zaiser, Dean of Admissions. The school received about 9340 applications for 1290 spots for the class of 2012. Distinguishing between students for admittance can often come down to a single differing factor.

“Because so many student applicants have strong academic profiles, we have had to reevaluate the way we utilize the essay and activities in the admissions process,” said Zaiser.  “While the academic is always paramount, a student with a stronger essay than another, all other things being equal, could be given one of the seats in the class.”

Colleges have seemingly backed themselves into a corner, albeit a positive one to be in. As the desire for post-secondary education grows, a new dilemma appears: what happens to prestige when everyone is good enough?

Maybe prestige does not matter after all, and somewhere there is a place for everyone.

Or maybe there will be a new way to raise the bar.

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