SummarySeton Counselor Nick Marmalejo offers solid college application advice and views on GPA vs. course load, standardized tests, and extracurricular activities.
Note: As Seton’s Guidance Counselor, I receive many calls about College Admission, particularly this time of year. To that end, I asked the editors to re-publish this as its direction is so timely and valuable.
Every Seton family is in a different place in their homeschooling journey. Some are exceedingly familiar with the college application process, while others feel as though they are wandering in the desert.
My aim for this article is to provide you with some basic—and hopefully helpful—information to guide you and give you a confidence boost in navigating any college admissions process.
In general, colleges of all kinds are looking at three things when it comes to admissions: prior coursework, SAT/ACT scores, and extra-curricular activities. These last include everything from participation in sports and the fine arts to volunteering and leadership activities. The first two categories concern the academic life of the student, while the third takes into account life outside the classroom.
Coursework & GPA
For the college, the core picture of a student is made up by the course load the student has undertaken during their high school career. College admission departments want to know not only what courses a student has taken, but also if that course load was the most rigorous available to the student.
Currently, there is a heavy push by education professionals to sell the importance of Honors, AP, and IB classes to eager students and their parents. While these classes do have their merit, admissions departments increasingly have their own unique internal ranking system, and they assess the competitiveness of a student’s application to some degree only against what was available at the student’s school. This means that if a student did not take an AP class because it was not offered, the student may not be penalized.
A similar scenario arises with how a student’s GPA is considered. While many colleges want to see a 4.0 equivalent GPA on the transcript, high schools across the fruited plain have muddied the waters and obscured the looking glass with creative GPA calculations. These schools often weight a specific course—usually an Honors, AP, or IB class—as having a higher GPA possibility.
The argument is that since those classes have tougher coursework than the regular courses, a student should receive more merit on their transcript for their achievements and not be punished for taking a harder course. An example would be that instead of receiving a 4.0 on a 4.0 scale for a perfect grade in Honors World Literature, a student might receive a 4.5 or 5.0 for the course while still being on a 4.0 scale. This is what is called a weighted GPA.
What this means is that there is no longer any universal GPA standard, and now every college has to sort through the nuances of a particular GPA to gain a better understanding of a prospective student. This is why every college now enquires if a student’s GPA is weighted.
At this point, you might be scratching or shaking your head. If schools are tampering with GPAs, doesn’t that create a skewed playing field? Will not a GPA become arbitrary, since, as soon as one school or system begins weighting its GPA, others will do the same or come up with their own scale?
My answer: Yes, and this is part of the mess that is modern education.
The ACT and SAT are the most widely accepted and important standardized tests used for undergraduate admissions. Students should take one or the other, no later than the second half of the 11th grade. It is advisable (if it is not a hardship) to take the exam earlier, as either test can be taken as often as a student desires to achieve the best scores.
A pre-SAT also exists, and it offers students the potential to win a National Merit Scholarship ($2500), but sitting for the test can be difficult. Unlike the regular SAT or ACT, where you can simply go online to register for the exam, you will need to gain permission from your local school district or private school, if they are offering the test, in order to sit for it at their facility. It can be meritorious for a student to take the pre-SAT, but it is not a pre-requisite for college. Of the approximately 1.6 million 11th grade students who take the exam each year, only about 8,000 students obtain the scholarship.
Are SAT or ACT scores really that important? Yes, they are. No matter how imperfect these tests may be, they are used in many cases to assess a student’s strength and depth of their course work.
My bottom line recommendation on the SAT or ACT is to study for either exam as you would for a class. At a minimum, purchase a book on the test(s) you intend to take and visit their respective websites for practice questions, study tips, and test registration.
A student’s personal profile is not complete without an account of what one does when outside the classroom. Whether it’s playing an instrument, playing a sport, or other activity, such as learning a trade, communicating this information to the college will round out your application. It provides context for all of your other achievements and helps the college determine if you are a good fit for their school.
Seton students can receive credit for some of their extracurricular activities by recording them on a homeschool transcript and sending them to us. (A homeschool transcript template is available under the Resources tab on your MySeton page). Leadership activities such as time spent in Boy Scouts or doing volunteer work cannot be recorded on the transcript. Those items should be communicated separately to the college along with your application.
One Final Tip
Do not wait until the last minute to plan for or apply to college. If you think college is in your future, or may be in your future, think about your prospective paths now. Similarly, when it comes to deadlines, always seek to be at least 4-6 weeks ahead of schedule. This allows for more personal sanity as well as time to resolve inevitable discrepancies as they arise.
In the meantime, if you have specific questions do not hesitate to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
At Seton, you receive an unweighted GPA for only those classes graded by Seton. It is based on a 100 point scale and then calculated into a 4.0 equivalent. If you want to read about the nuances of how the 4.0 Seton GPA is calculated from the 100 point calculation, please visit www.setonhome.org/gpa.
The above also means that transfer credits and independent studies are not included within the Seton-given GPA. This is not wholly uncommon. But remember colleges and universities are focusing on the actual coursework and entire picture, not simply a single numeric calculation.