Now that high school freshmen have a semester under their belt, it is a good time to get them thinking a little bit about college. Basically they have to decide if they are going to select their college the harder way to the highly selective colleges or the easier way to everywhere else. And this decision will influence the choices they make regarding course selection, extracurricular activities, social life and the school-friends-home balance. Students who actively pick either way are generally able to handle their path.
The stressed out student is the one who didn't have a goal and ends sophomore year with a 3.7. She suddenly decides she wants to go to Berkeley and puts pressure on herself to load up on APs junior year with the goal of getting straight A's with no room for error.
The Easier Way ? This is the path most students choose. They do their best. They study. They keep their GPA around a 3.5, and definitely above a 3.0, take a few APs they are interested in, perform a reasonable amount of community service and get involved in something outside of class and there are about 2000 colleges that would love to have them. Many of these schools such as the CSU's don't even require an essay!
As one of my students wrote in her essay, "I didn't want to fake my way into college by taking AP courses I wasn't interested in." She got in to her first choice school.
The largest number of recent Paly grads went to out of state public colleges (14%). Not a typo. Other states will educate more Paly grads than the UC's will. If you have above a 3.0 you can get into most top-notch state research universities. There are really smart students and first rate professors at Oregon, Colorado, Wisconsin and Arizona. Their graduates populate Silicon Valley. Even a competitive program like engineering at Illinois or Purdue will accept that 3.6-3.8 student with top math grades who didn't get into Cal. Or they can stay closer to home and attend the highly regarded and competitive computer science program at San Jose State.
If they are looking for a medium sized school like Santa Clara, LMU or one of the other Jesuit schools, their 3.5 will look pretty good. The head of the UC's Janet Napolitano went to Santa Clara!
These students will have plenty of options at my favorite list of residential liberal arts schools, Colleges That Change Lives.
The easy way is not the slacker way. It just means their path to success will be balanced and one bad grade will not derail their plans.
The Harder Way ? This is not for the faint of heart. It is doable, but requires a significant commitment to academics. There are no guarantees. Berkeley, Harvard and Stanford reject plenty of 4.0 students. This path is for students who want to attend a top UC or the twenty or so colleges with admit rates below 15%.
The goal for these students should be to graduate in the top 10% of their class and have one significant achievement in community service, non-school academics, or sports. Their application essays have to be outstanding. For a few brilliant students, this may come easy. But for most it will mean making social and financial sacrifices to provide ample time to study, meet with tutors, and develop their special talent.
To graduate in the top 10% at Paly or Gunn means they have to make it through their first three years with only one or two B's. Around 4% of the class will have straight A's. To finish with an extremely terrific 3.8 unweighted GPA means they are somewhere in the top 27%. So they could have a 3.8 and not graduate in the top 25% of their class. All of this data is available on the Paly and Gunn websites.
To get into a top 6 UC (Berkeley, UCLA, San Diego, Davis, Santa Barbara, Irvine) students basically need above a 4.0 weighted GPA. Even with this standard, Berkeley has only a 32% admit rate for students above a 4.0. Riverside and Merced are less competitive than the rest and they really should be on The Easier Way list. Santa Cruz is now a stretch school for anyone below a 3.7. To see just how competitive the UC's are by GPA check out the UC Freshman Profiles site.
As daunting as these UC stats are, they are actually skewed low! For students from high achieving high schools like Paly and Gunn which offer lots of AP classes, students are expected to take the hard AP classes available to them. The expectation is that GPA's coming out of Paly or Gunn will be higher than the GPA's coming out of high school with a lower API.
To further underscore these numbers for both the Easier Way and Harder Way you should check out the college scattergrams on your school's Naviance account. I don't think freshmen have access to Naviance at all schools, so find an upperclassman friend who can show you the stats. These show what GPA/SAT combination got accepted and what combination got rejected for students who applied to a particular college over the past three years. Remember that the Naviance data is a lagging indicator. Student admission profiles have increased over the last three years, meaning the Naviance data is low.
My advice: if a student is not naturally among the top 20% GPA's, they should embrace their high school experience. The upside for the 80% is they have lots of great choices and they basically get to pick their college: Colorado or Oregon; Illinois or Purdue; Nevada, Reno or San Jose State. The downside for the 20% is that their college choice is basically out of their hands, they will have to wait to find out which college picked them. And after all that work, some will not get picked.