How your high school student can become the applicant colleges want

Do grades matter more than test scores now in college admissions? (AJC File)

With high school seniors facing a Sunday deadline to commit to a college, I thought it was a good time to share this essay by Bryan Rutledge, director of college counseling at Woodward Academy in College Park.

Rutledge discusses how high school students can build a compelling and competitive resume to submit to colleges without resorting to pricey drama camps in New York or fly fishing courses in Wyoming.

By Bryan Rutledge

“Impossible!” some say. The only way to have a compelling high school resume is to start early and pour thousands of dollars into fine arts classes, athletic coaches, summer college enrichment courses, consultants, and international excursions.

Not so.

Together we can clear a path leading to the same outcomes without the same expense. What can we say to families who, by necessity or choice, simply do not have the resources for expensive college preparation? Be cheered: with work and planning a quality high school resume and education are available without breaking the bank.

And without breaking the spirit. What do I mean by that? All too often the co-curricular life of young people becomes a set of chores that “have” to be completed whether the student wants to or not.  So the student adds to all the academic and standardized test and social demands a full complement of co-curricular ones, the outcome being a young life so utterly “scheduled” by well-intentioned adults that little time remains for the student freely to choose avocations, to explore based on curiosity and whim, and yes, to experience the growth that comes from some measure of falling short and trying again.

You’ve heard the marvelous expression, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.” When we freely choose an activity or job, we are invested, empowered, responsible, much more likely to persist and excel. For some young people, it takes time to find something to believe in, what researchers have called an “identity project.”

Once found, though, it is a joy to behold.  Sure, the search can involve some dead ends, and the student who uses freedom to sleep or watch TV all day may need a little extra guidance; but persistence pays off if you cast the search as an adventure rather than an ordeal.

Enter the holistic college admission counselor, whose hopes go something like this: “We invite to our community bright and open and engaged students with diverse interests and backgrounds. Bring authentic curiosity and passion for both your academic and co-curricular life. Be willing to reach beyond your comfort zone to tackle challenges. Lead and team up in causes that improve your life and the lives of others.  Expect much from yourself but keep a sense of humor.”

How will the reserved or shy student who prefers interacting with a computer to direct contact with humans respond to this admissions exhortation? The answer is, probably not as well. It may or may not be fair, but success in college admission favors outgoing folks with a record of engaging constructively in the high school and larger community; those who seek the company of others; who relate well to adults and peers; who are confident speakers and writers. (There are, of course, limits to the power of personality.)

On the other hand, almost everyone has meaningful involvements they care about, and the patient parent or counselor can coax the turtle out of its shell. I recall counseling a shy young technologist who, I learned, loves to cook.  Whereupon he launched into stories about experimental recipes and family dinners and, to my delight, wrote a crackerjack essay about cooking. “Digital Chef” was born. Delicious!

Just as we heard from our friends in admission, let’s consider more closely the students they review, not as first semester seniors but as first semester high school freshmen. Fourteen or 15-year-olds entering high school have a lot to contend with. Sharing the hallways with older students, they may feel lost in the Land of the Giants.

How, freshmen wonder, will they succeed and be popular? Their parents, too, may be applying more pressure now that the grades “count” for college admission. These are major challenges for a young person who may be more middle school than high school.

To help, we can start simply by encouraging freshmen to consider a couple of school clubs that build on interests they already have, such as technology, math and science, languages, fine arts, community service, social or political causes. Perhaps there is a high school film-making, entrepreneurial, or debate club; or one devoted to promoting diversity or chess.

If your high school lacks appealing options, turn to civic or faith-based organizations in your community. Besides building a meaningful co-curricular life, this is great way to make friends. Parents and students alike should consult teachers, college counselors, and students and parents who have successfully navigated the shoals. Go-getters find answers more quickly than wallflowers.

School newspapers, for example, are an arena where the novice can be mentored by older student journalists and a faculty sponsor, sell ads, research, or conduct interviews. After time and work, positions emerge such as editorialist, business manager, photographer, fine arts or athletic columnist, layout and technology specialist, and editor-in-chief.

What’s more, the budding muckraker learns teamwork, following directions, making financial ends meet, getting the facts right, writing and speaking professionally, and meeting deadlines. How much money does this deep dive into a real career cost the family or the student?  Would the skills and personal qualities developed by working on the school paper be appealing to the college admission counselors described above? You bet they would.

The trusty school newspaper is just one example. But first, let’s address something many parents hear from their teenager (perhaps punctuated with a slamming door): “But I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up!” Hey, plenty of grown-ups don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. I’ve heard it jokingly claimed that, when we ask youngsters their career plans, we’re just looking for ideas. Anyway, here’s how you can turn undecided into an asset rather than a liability.

Let’s take a moment to dismiss once and for all the absurd notion that undecided means clueless. Remember that great line from the movie Mona Lisa Smiles: “All those who wander are not lost.” When you think about it, the undecided student is saying the following about choosing a college major and career: “I’m told by experts that I’m likely to change my college major and career direction several times anyway, so I should probably have a broad-based liberal arts education, remain flexible, and combine my talents rather than choose just one. I’ve heard that employers want multitaskers and, besides, I’m just plain curious. ”

Pretty savvy youngster, eh, perhaps the type you would hire? By second semester of sophomore year, most students have a sense of whether they incline to math/science, English/history, or fine arts; perhaps they are a fun combination of two or more. Every summer presents the chance to explore college majors or careers more closely, with a job, apprenticeship, or research.

(By the way, paying job is a fine summer solution, whether scooping ice cream or selling clothing. Budding entrepreneurs might stencil addresses on street corners, walk dogs, teach computer skills, or craft wooden iPhone cases.)

Consider shadowing a trusted professional in a field of interest; in return for answering phones, cleaning up the office, or reorganizing computer files, the shadow can learn more about the profession over a two-week period. I’ve seen these experiences work brilliantly, sometimes extending from two weeks to the better part of a summer, sometimes becoming paying jobs. I’ve seen fantastic college essays written about self-designed internships. All for free.

What becomes of a high school student who responsibly builds a life of meaningful and enjoyable activities, who takes worthwhile risks and is resilient through setbacks, who finds an academic passion and pursues it beyond the classroom, who can manage fine without constant adult supervision? Would such a student be more likely to apply to colleges for the right reasons, choose well among the colleges that have the good judgment to offer admission, and be a splendid citizen of that learning community? What kind of adult professional would this student become?  What kind of person would this student become?

Strategizing for college admission doesn’t have to be a chore, nor does it have to empty your bank account. The solutions are right at our fingertips and can be a healthy, fun, companion to learning and growing up.




Reader Comments 0


How to get into a competitive college when your grades are average?  Simple.  Check the "Multiracial" ethnic box.  If that doesn't work, declare African American Studies as your major.  Take core classes for a year and then change your major.


@Lee_CPA2 Now, that's a little harsh. If you're planning an affirmative action admission it would help to play the card early, by getting yourself admitted to Woodward Academy or another first rate private school.  College admission won't be a problem.  If you're really smart, black or Hispanic, you might even get a scholarship to a good private school, and be assured of college admission. If your parents are prominent politicians or very wealthy blacks or Hispanics you can pay your own way. 

If you're white and poor forget it. If you're white and wealthy you'll have to compete tooth and nail.  If you're Asian you'll have to compete really hard.

MaureenDowney moderator

@Lee_CPA2 Not borne out by data. You can read a good piece on this in the Atlantic, which does top-notch education reporting. 

Here is the nut graph of its piece:  

Among the 100-odd “very high research activity” institutions scored by Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research, most saw their percentage of black undergraduates shrink between 1994 and 2013, the product of modest growth in black enrollment amid a much more rapid expansion of students on campus, according to data collected by the U.S. Department of Education. This list includes not only Ivy League schools and selective private colleges, but also many large public universities, including UCLA, Florida State, and the University of Michigan.


@MaureenDowney @Lee_CPA2 There's a high school in New York, at the southern tip of Long Island which seems to mostly have a student body of wealthy black kids. Last year one was accepted to every Ivy League school.  This year the same thing happened. Pearls of great price.