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What Freshmen Should be Thinking About College

Uploaded: Jan 28, 2015
(Written by John Raftrey)

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.
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Comments

 +   3 people like this
Posted by Ginny , a resident of another community,
on Jan 28, 2015 at 2:17 pm

I taught at Paly many years ago. I now tutor math on the San Mateo County Coastside. The more I think about college and eighteen year olds, the more I think going to a community college makes sense. There is a vast savings of money, of course. And, these community colleges in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties are wonderful. The students can live at home, have part time jobs, see friends from high school and prepare for transferring into four year colleges as juniors. I was popular as a freshman student in college but I was also home sick. The pressures on teenagers to jump through all these hoops to get into the Ivy Leagues or state and private universities should be heavily weighted by the students, parents, and school counselors.


 +   3 people like this
Posted by Miranda, a resident of Menlo Park: University Heights,
on Jan 28, 2015 at 8:08 pm

These pointers are broad, sweeping, and only mention two of the multitude of options actually available. Reducing the options post-high school to a couple of one-dimensional categories leaves out community college, gap year, study abroad, vocational study, etc.


It's true, it may take someone less effort (the "Easier Way") to achieve a 3.5 GPA than a 4.6, the latter of which is necessary to get in to many competitive private universities. But why should freshmen set the bar for themselves at what they think is their level? Apparently these students who aren't "naturally among the top 20% GPA's" should settle for where they truly belong; these colleges have helpfully been pre-estabished by the author.
In reality, a student who is beginning the college process should do research, decide personally (without 'help' from mom/dad/counselor) where they want to go and then evaluate what they need to do to achieve that goal. Nothing, save mental disability and financial constraints, should prevent a student from attempting their best. And whether or not their choice school falls into the "Easy Way" path or the big scary "Hard" one is irrelevant and entirely unique to each student. In short, establish first what your goals are and second what you will do to achieve, rather than the opposite, as these authors indicate.

Beginning the college process makes sense junior and senior years, but to start the conversation freshman year is premature and will only yield additional stress. The best help one can give is to make sure students are constantly reevaluating and asking themselves *why* they are pursuing their current activities, and then giving support following their decisions.

The biggest mistake counselors, parents, and students make is in gearing the entire high school experience toward college. To place high school solely in the context of college is to fall prey to the college checklist approach, to the highly competitive atmosphere that in the most extreme case, has even led to depression and suicide.
Students feel obliged to make decisions about their classes and hobbies in the interest of what they think colleges 'want.' Yet what is vitally more important than checking boxes on the college list is pursuing individual interests and passions; when it comes time to apply to college and write about these activities and/or classes, genuine passion will ultimately shine through. It's not stressed enough that a colleges are more interested in *why* a student chose to pursue their activity than its place on the list.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Ginny, a resident of another community,
on Jan 28, 2015 at 9:14 pm

Great post Miranda. Indeed, there are alternatives. Above, I mentioned the pluses of community college. When I taught at Paly many years ago the pressure was stifling. Many students enjoyed the experience; especially students who were motivated. And, many students were unhappy with constant school competition and pressure from parents to excel. I witnessed students who were depressed, on meds, on street drugs, anorexic, and self-harming themselves. And, of course we have read about suicides. Parents need to consult their children and not place too many demands on their children. As Kahlil Gibran says mothers "house their children's bodies but not their minds". Really listen to your children.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Lisa , a resident of Crescent Park,
on Jan 29, 2015 at 11:30 am

There are advantages to working hard and focusing for 3 years in high school (to be in the top 20%) - and fears that it leads to suicide, depression etc. are quite overblown. It means watching less TV and less FB, perhaps, and learning how to manage time. My daughter and her friends did it quite successfully. Now, those 3-4 years of focused hard work and a little bit of stress are paying off, big time - much *less* stress 8-9 years later. The world is their oyster; employers have rolled out the red carpet. Several of her Paly friends are at Google, loving the fun & intellectual engagement of their work lives. Another is getting a PhD at Stanford. Two are on Wall Street, thrilled by the opportunity to watch - up close and personal - global markets swing in response to geopolitical shifts. Don't let fear of short-term high school 'stress' derail you from long-term dreams & ambitions.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by ginny, a resident of another community,
on Jan 29, 2015 at 12:15 pm

Lisa, you made my point. As parents, we are consultants to our children when they get into their mid teens. I am certain you would have noticed problems around symptoms of stress had you seen them. I am happy your student thrived in the academic environment.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by Concerned, a resident of Jordan Middle School,
on Jan 29, 2015 at 1:24 pm

I would love to see a blog on choosing to attend community college with the intention of transferring to a UC or other 4-year college/university. I know many people who have successfully done this and they are happy! Is this still a viable option? I would also like to see advice on helping hardworking, intelligent students who have learning differences achieve their college goals too. It's one thing to work really hard and be able to get into the school of your choice, but not everybody can achieve that goal despite how hard they work! As stated in the blog, even many students with 4.0s are rejected by the top universities! So no matter how hard my daughter works she might never achieve A s in math or Spanish It's a balancing act. She has to at least pass those classes, but she also has to have time to work on her strengths because that's what colleges are most interested in. What if a student (like my daughter) is extremely weak in some areas but highly gifted in others? I would love to see this topic addressed too. BTW my daughter is only in middle school so we have time to plan, but we are definitely planning now! Of course many of the "Colleges that change lives" mentioned above are excellent choices too but like the more highly selective SLACs, they are private and cost a lot of money. This is one reason we and a lot of people I know are interested in the UCs for our kids. Because they are great public universities that still cost a fraction of what privates cost. I have to put twins through college and am finding it pretty daunting, especially the financial aspect!

Does anybody know if moving out of PAUSD and relocating to a less hardcore district for high school is a good option? I am really starting to wonder. I know somebody from Burbank who told us that the sons of one of her friends were each accepted to top UCs, one to CAL and the other to UCLA. They sailed through high school, which they found easy, and had no problems getting accepted to these schools. Contrast that to Gunn and Paly (and probably Menlo-Atherton) where many top students must go out of state or to less selective schools (unless their parents can afford tuition for some of the highly selective liberal arts colleges. We would not be able to do that). It just seems ridiculous that if this is true, students from easier districts are getting into these colleges more easily. Of course I keep hearing that once students go through our schools here they are well prepared for college and happy they had such a rigorous high school experience, but if it's so rigorous they can't even get into a college of their choice what good is that?


 +  Like this comment
Posted by SEA_SEELAM REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 29, 2015 at 2:35 pm

SEA_SEELAM REDDY is a registered user.

As a parent of two children with varying interest; here is my input:

Freshman in high school has great opportunity in the first two semesters to get to know many classmates,10th graders etc.,

Try not to take AP classes right away, may be 1 (one) like AP History.
Feel your teachers grading; some are harder than other

Ask your friends/10th graders about the teachers. You want to manage this by knowing what to expect.

Most of you are college bound; then begin taking more AP classes in 10th grade like hard sciences (have labs and more time).

Utilize summer before 10th grade to take a class for 6 weeks and may be get an A; like a language class (French/Spanish/Latin) to improve your grades.

Summer classes are good grade improvers.

Do not be afraid; if you did not get a good grade; do not worry; move on to the next subject!

How do I know: I have one daughter 4.0 and scored 800 in SAT Math and went to UC Berkeley and graduated in 2002. I have another daughter that scored 3.0 in high school and 3.5 at Concordia University in Irvine and graduated in 2006

The most important thing is to have confidence and have learning skills and make friends. It goes a long way to live a good life!

Respectfully

Respectfully

Be a sport! you can do it!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by SEA_SEELAM REDDY, a resident of College Terrace,
on Jan 29, 2015 at 2:35 pm

SEA_SEELAM REDDY is a registered user.

As a parent of two children with varying interest; here is my input:

Freshman in high school has great opportunity in the first two semesters to get to know many classmates,10th graders etc.,

Try not to take AP classes right away, may be 1 (one) like AP History.
Feel your teachers grading; some are harder than other

Ask your friends/10th graders about the teachers. You want to manage this by knowing what to expect.

Most of you are college bound; then begin taking more AP classes in 10th grade like hard sciences (have labs and more time).

Utilize summer before 10th grade to take a class for 6 weeks and may be get an A; like a language class (French/Spanish/Latin) to improve your grades.

Summer classes are good grade improvers.

Do not be afraid; if you did not get a good grade; do not worry; move on to the next subject!

How do I know: I have one daughter 4.0 and scored 800 in SAT Math and went to UC Berkeley and graduated in 2002. I have another daughter that scored 3.0 in high school and 3.5 at Concordia University in Irvine and graduated in 2006

The most important thing is to have confidence and have learning skills and make friends. It goes a long way to live a good life!

Respectfully

Respectfully

Be a sport! you can do it!


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Palo Alto, a resident of Downtown North,
on Jan 29, 2015 at 5:46 pm

Lisa,
I think the point is that not all students want to work at Google, Wall Street or go to Stanford. My son does great in school, but simply put, he is not going to extend himself, in order to be in the top 10%. I think that the author did a
great job in pointing out the difference in lifestyle choices. It seems hard to believe that some kids/people are happy,
smart & simply in no way interested in being an overachiever! Anyway, who knows where all of this high school achievement will ultimately lead. I was a very average high school student, went to a CSU & live here in Palo Alto,
have a great job, nice kid, happy life! By the way, I grew up here & attended Gunn High School.

Thanks for the great post.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by Lori McCormick, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jan 30, 2015 at 12:18 am

Dear Concerned,
My name is Lori McCormick and I am one of the authors of this blog. Thank you for your comments; we always appreciate readers sharing their views. Last November I wrote an article about the community college system and all the great things it offers (including transfer options). Here is the link: Web Link

In response to your request about providing information for students with learning differences, hopefully we can post an article on this subject in the near future. Thank you for the suggestion!

I am interested to hear other's thoughts on transferring districts for the sake of gaining college admissions access to UCLA, Cal and the like.

Personally, I would advise against it. But my reasons have less to do with college admissions and more to do with the well-being of the student. However, I don't think this is a one-size fits all answer. On one hand, it could be emotionally and socially difficult for a young person to be relocated from the community they know; where they have family and friends, simply for the sake of gaining access to various elite colleges. For some students, relocating might be the best decision a family makes.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Ginny, a resident of another community,
on Jan 30, 2015 at 8:44 am

I have seen huge success in transfers from community colleges to UCs. I had a student who had cancer and was unable to to directly to a four year college/university. Also, there are very bright students who may be financially helping the family by working part time jobs before leaving for their third and fourth years of college. If you read the state community college legislation, there are sections of the law which make the transfers trouble free and positive. I would be interested in knowing the reasons for your advise against it. This practice has tremendous worth and the laws of California state stepping stones between community colleges and the UC system.


 +   2 people like this
Posted by PA Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Jan 30, 2015 at 11:52 am

Hi Lori,

Regarding your wanting feedback on the idea of transferring districts, this has been a discussion in our household multiple times. My niece, who went to high school in a district where academics were not emphasized in a majority of the households, was able to rise to the top of her class fairly easily. I know that she was conscientious about her school work but she also had a part time job, ran cross country, played in an orchestra, and also had plenty of free time to relax with friends, despite doing these other activities, simply because her school work was not taking up a majority of her time. As co-valedictorian of her high school, she was admitted to both of the Ivy League schools to which she applied. I am pretty sure that, had she gone to high school in Palo Alto, that the results would not have been the same. She didn't really have anything that made her exceptional except that she was the top student in her class. Since PA schools don't do class ranking, this accomplishment would have been non-evident and she would have been just another bright student.
When I suggested to my daughter in 8th grade that her high school experience might be a little easier (and perhaps more enjoyable) if we moved out of PA, she was not willing to move and give up her social attachments. She has since expressed second thoughts about her decision and has told me that she thinks this would be a wise choice for her younger sibling. These comments have come prior to any college acceptance decisions. She's done well academically and is still optimistic about her ability to gain access to the schools of her choice, so it will be interesting to see if her opinion is even more emphatic should things not turn out as she has hoped (as I fear they well despite the amount of effort she has put into school and the stress that she has placed on herself these past couple of years.)
Regarding community college. I too feel that this is a great option as the cost of 4 year colleges continues to skyrocket. Unfortunately, no matter how often I suggest to my child that this should be a consideration in her long-term educational plans, (as she is already expecting herself to go to grad school), she will not consider it. Her rational is valid from her teenage perspective, as I too can feel it as an adult, and it is two-fold. Firstly, that there is a stigma to going to community college in this community and secondly, that she feels that she will not be challenged since her peers who can get into a four-year school will most likely be going to a four-year school and not to community college. Although many of the UCs have transfer acceptance guarantees (TAGs), the fact that the top UCs and some majors at some campuses are excluded, it perpetuates the idea that a community college education is not as valuable. I think if the top UCs offered TAGs for students with high GPAs and in all majors, that would make community college a more attractive option.
In our society, we feel compelled to list peoples academic credentials (even if they were 20,30, 40+ years in the past) in order to legitimize their position. It's hard for our children to break away from the idea that where you went to school doesn't matter when it seems so important to the adults around them. If people would simply stop listing their academic credentials in regards to public matters (ie running for the school board or prior to a community outreach event like parent ed talks) I think it would help us all see that this doesn't matter, what matters is whether you believe in the person's ideas and not because they are legitimized by the person's credentials.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by There are endless paths, a resident of Bailey Park,
on Jan 30, 2015 at 1:42 pm

I personally had a FANTASTIC transition from Foothill to Cal Poly SLO. JC was the first step in the path that has lead to my success.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by CC, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown,
on Jan 30, 2015 at 2:52 pm

Please students / parents keep in mind each college's graduation rates! On a national level, only 15-20% of Community college students ever graduate. Before you plan that route, consider carefully what it's like going to school with other students that mostly drop out for a wide variety of reasons.

I wish community college's were a more viable option for many kids, but they are just not unless the person in question is highly motivated and dedicated.


 +   1 person likes this
Posted by ginny, a resident of another community,
on Jan 30, 2015 at 3:46 pm

It doesn't matter what the other students decide to do at community college. Some leave. And, many are focused and stay. I know a student who went to community college who is a Doctor today. Another thing I want to throw into this conversation is that there are many young kids, away from home for the first time, who get caught up in college and frat./sorority partying. Many 18 year olds aren't "fully baked" and make poor decisions. I am not getting in the way of people who have made their plans already to send their student(s) to a four year college/university. But, I can defend the decisions many students make to wait two years to travel away to college.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Lori McCormick, a resident of Barron Park,
on Jan 30, 2015 at 4:38 pm

Dear "PA Parent",
Thank you for sharing your personal experience on deciding to move out of the PAUSD or stay. I do really feel like this is not a one-size fits all decision and as you stated, your niece had what seemed to be a very successful (and balanced?) high school career living elsewhere. Whereas your daughter speaks of regret staying local and is concerned for her sibling's high school experience here in Palo Alto. Your support and commitment in your kid's lives is the reason they will find post-secondary success. I wish them the best of luck!

Dear "Ginny",
I am confused why you asked why I would advise against community college? I love community colleges. Did you see the link I posted to "Concerned"? Here it is again. Web Link

I do agree with "CC" that the graduation rates at a community college are lower than a four-year, however, not every community college student's intention is to transfer and earn a Bachelor's degree. That is the beauty of community college; anyone can take a class, whether it be for personal enrichment, to earn a vocational certificate or to transfer to a four-year. And now, some community college students might be able to earn a Bachelor's degree... Web Link

I do advise that if a student's intention is to transfer to a four-year, then they need to visit their Transfer Center early and often to start working on their transfer plan.

Regards,
Lori McCormick


 +  Like this comment
Posted by ginny, a resident of another community,
on Jan 30, 2015 at 5:54 pm

Your note to "Dear Concerned 17 hours ago" left me confused, Lori.

I ultimately believe that each student is different. In the Palo Alto area, students' results are in some sort of petri dish. The outcome is supposed to be pure excellence, in most areas. We often see the negative results of pressure on our children. This academic competition starts at pre-school. It is amazing to me that such a bright community still measures the worth of their students with grades. I used to feel sorry for Paly students I gave B's to since kids told me that wasn't good enough for their parents. And, "the beat goes on, and on..."


 +  Like this comment
Posted by palo alto resident, a resident of Crescent Park,
on Feb 1, 2015 at 2:04 pm

@ Concerned, a resident of Jordan Middle School - I have two kids with learning differences, 18 and 22. One struggled with Math and World Languages. If I had it to do over, I would absolutely NOT send them to Paly or Gunn. I move, even to Los Altos or Mountain View. Or I would send them to Pinewood.

@PA Parent - you are right that there is a HUGE stigma attached to attending a CC in Palo Alto, unless it is for purely financial reasons (kids don't seem to have any issue with students that they know don't have much money).

Aside from some of the community college benefits mentioned above, a "regular" student (or one that thinks they are not particularly smart) from PAUSD attending Foothill will discover that they are actually smart, competent students.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by On graduation rates fom CCs, a resident of Bailey Park,
on Feb 2, 2015 at 2:29 pm

Don't let statistics mislead you. I personally did not graduate from a community college, I transferred to UC after 1.5 yrs. I wouldn't call that a negative, though it is true that I have no actual degree from Foothill, only Berkley. There are also MANY students taking refresher courses or simply a couple courses for fun. They are also counted in the graduation rates, so yes, they would seem unusually low until you looked at the goals of the sample group, then it would make more sense.


 +  Like this comment
Posted by Concerned, a resident of Jordan Middle School,
on Feb 5, 2015 at 10:24 am

Thank you everybody for advice about transferring districts, CCs, and learning differences at Paly!

Lori, Im looking forward to your column on LD students and the college application process. Perhaps you might think about doing a column on applying to art school and other creative or alternative college paths?

On Graduation Rates, I loved reading your comment about transferring to CAL after 1.5 years in CC. I have friends who also transferred to CAL from a CC and they were perfectly happy to go that route. Despite the stigma against CCs in this community, we might be advising our kids that if they want to go to a UC that might be the only way to do it because of the difficulty of getting accepted to one directly from high school and the financial hardship of putting two kids through college at the same time! But our family is more unconventional than many here and we don't care about whether or not other people are or aren't doing something. :-) My kids are very smart, creative types so I'm sure they will end up somewhere. It doesn't matter to me whether or not they get there right out of high school or go to CC first.

Palo Alto Resident, what specifically about Paly didn't you like for your kids (aside from the massive amounts of homework which is a problem for everybody)? Did your kids have IEPs or other accommodations? Instead of World Languages would they have been able to take American Sign Language or get a waiver not to take languages? Were they in higher lanes of math or lower ones? Were they discouraged by the ridiculous amount of competition there? Why would Los Altos High be any better? I've heard it's much worse as far as accommodating LD kids, but maybe that's just kids with severe disabilities? So far my kids are doing very well with support at Jordan, but the quantity of homework is pretty intense and it is supposed to get even more intense in 7th grade (and we all know what it's like in high school here!). So if you could have sent your kids to school in another district nearby or anywhere else in the state (or country for that matter) where would you have sent them?


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