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Dr. Jane S. Gabin
Dr. Jane S. Gabin After 10 years in university admissions and another decade as a college counselor in the NY metro area, Dr. Gabin works as a researcher, writer, and independent educational consultant. She graduated from Queens College and has a PhD in English from UNC-Chapel Hill. She is a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.
Q: This is a pretty sticky situation. I dropped out of high school to homeschool myself without credit some time ago, using online high school and college-level courses and books, and I've had nobody to help me with college applications or getting into programs. I'm very interested in physics and want to go to a major state university. Is going to community college for a year or two and working really hard there actually a good strategy, or will my lack of credit for high school forever prevent my success?
A: You are correct; this is indeed a sticky situation, but not a hopeless one. At the outset, what do you mean by "some time ago"? Did you drop out three years ago, or twenty? It could make a difference. You need to check on several things: Do you need to pass a high school equivalency assessment known as the Test Assessing Secondary Completion or "TASC" (which replaced the GED) to be admitted into a community college? Can you do a credit-by-examination at a local community college to prove your academic skills?
Q: I didn’t apply to any school by the November 1, early action deadline. Guess I’ve blown it, right?
A: No. True, many students apply to college under Early Action or Early Decision. But MOST students apply to MOST schools later. On the one hand, you have missed the advantages of Early Action—where you get an early admissions decision without the obligation to enroll—but on the other you have also avoided the frenzy Early Decision where you have to apply and commit to a school early in your senior year.
Take comfort in the fact that if you have not applied to college yet, it’s because you really didn’t want to. Many students who apply under the “early” programs are sorry later. They really needed extra time to make up their minds. If there were indeed a college that you truly, desperately wanted to enter, you would have applied.
Q: This is my senior year. I moved to the US from Vietnam in the second semester of my sophomore year. I attend a large, pretty crowded public high school and my parents knew nothing about schooling in the U.S. So my classes are not the strongest in the school and I haven't done ANY activities yet. That's because I spent time learning English and helping my family. We didn't have clubs in Vietnam, and I didn't get information about them here, because I was working after school.
But now that I have to apply to college, will this hurt me? Can I explain why I wasn't on any teams or in clubs? And I only earned about AP classes when I was researching colleges online, by myself. When I arrived here from Vietnam, the school just looked at my records and assigned me to random classes. Last year I had one honors course, in math; I aced it, so my teacher recommended me for AP Calculus, which I am taking this year.
I am worried that it will look like I have avoided challenging courses and activities. I'm just stuck hopelessly! Should I explain about my special circumstances?
A: Yes, absolutely! First of all, you cannot be blamed for not taking what was not available. It's not your fault that you didn't take the most challenging courses. You arrived not knowing English, coming from a different educational system, and having to spend your extra time helping your family. And what your high school did at the time was probably what they thought best. However, college admissions staff cannot expect your application to look like that of someone who has grown up in the U.S. and has been strategizing for years how to get into U.S. colleges. Don't worry: all applicants are looked at in the context of what was available to them.
Q: In high school, I was sure I wanted to enter the police force, so I attended a police academy for two years. But then I realized this was not the right career for me, and I left the academy. Now I want to apply to a regular college, but am really worried about this. Will my chances of admission be less because I went to the police academy? I want to get into a top school, but will they consider me good enough for their programs? I am concerned that I might not get in at all, and that my earlier choice might affect my future. What should I do?
A: Don't be so harsh with yourself! A lot of young people make a choice they think is appropriate for them AT THE TIME, but which turns out not to be the right choice. Do you think you're the only one? What about the student who spends a year or two in nursing school, and then realizes her heart isn't in it? Or the one who studies engineering and then discovers it's really math that he wanted?
Q: I hope you can answer this before school closes for the summer. It would help settle a family dispute! Our son is finishing his junior year of high school. He's a good student, B/B+ average—not at the top of his class, but probably in the top quarter. He has to apply to college next fall, and I think he needs to use this coming summer to better advantage. The last three summers, he's played baseball in a town league and when not playing baseball he's worked at a local restaurant as a busboy and server. I think he ought enhance his applications. I want him to take an SAT prep course and to get at least one internship. Our next-door neighbor is a dentist, and is willing to let our son work in his office for a month. Wouldn't an internship in a dental practice look better on his applications than a job bringing people their pizza?
A: No, not necessarily. One can learn a lot about people by serving them their meals, as well as a lot about oneself by accepting responsibility.
Unless your son's essay or other activities indicate that he has an interest in the health professions, working in a dentist's office for a month won't matter.
Q: Do you recommend that we send colleges our child's first round of ACT scores? Of course, we don't know how he did, but he seemed to feel confident about it. In addition, his practice test scores had him scoring at the 98th percentile.
A: You do not say if your child is a high school junior—I will assume that. I do not think it is healthy to start studying for, or taking, the standardized tests before that (although I know the PSAT is usually given to 10th graders).
My first reaction to your sending the scores to colleges is: Why? And the second question would be: Where? Do you already have a list of possible colleges? It's a little early to have a final list.
Q: I was waitlisted at my top school (Cornell), as well as two other schools (UPenn and Dartmouth). Realistically, what are my chances of getting into Cornell from their waitlist? My major is biomedical engineering (with a minor in animal science) and I am female. I got into my "targets" and "safeties" but none of them offer biomedical engineering AND animal science, and quite frankly, I just don't like them.
A: Being on a waitlist is a tough situation. You don't have a final answer and yet you still need to enroll somewhere by May 1. Sometimes colleges never take anyone from their waitlists, and at other times, when they do take applicants, it seems random.
It's actually not completely random, and you do have some power here. But, just as with any admissions decision, there are no guarantees.
Q: I am in 10th grade and starting to think about preparing for college admission. This year, some of my friends took the new SAT. But at this point I don’t know if I should prepare for the SAT or take the ACT. Which would look better for college?
A: To colleges, the SAT and the ACT “look” the same. Admissions offices do not care which test you take. It doesn’t matter. You should take the test with which you are more comfortable. Some students like the new SAT, while others do not. There is always going to be a difference of opinion.
The tests were created at two different times and by two different companies. And, these companies pretty much control the testing market. The tests are not perfect, and results are dependent on many factors including academic preparation, socioeconomics, and English fluency.
Q: I'm thinking about transferring from a private to a public school in the middle of my senior year. If I do end up transferring, will this affect the college applications I've already sent? And if so, will this have a heavy impact?
A: The answer is yes! Transferring from one school to another during the high school years is one thing; but transferring in the middle of your senior year is another.
Switching high schools is fairly common. It happens for many reasons: a parent gets a new job, a parent re-marries and moves to another city or state, a family's financial situation changes. I remember reading an application from a young woman in a military family; they moved to a new base annually, and she wrote that one of the reasons she looked forward to college was being in the same place for four consecutive years! But the moving around, in itself, did not hurt her.
Q: I failed my geometry class for one grading period, but I am a straight A student for everything else. Is there any way for me to get accepted by a pretty good college?
A: Short answer: Yes.
Longer answer: Sounds like you had a tough time with your math class, but you are a hard-working student and this failure came as a real shock; failing is not what you ordinarily do. And someone is telling you, "Now, you'll never get into a good college!" Take a deep breath. Everyone messes up on something. But if this one grading period's failure is uncharacteristic, and everything else is fine, you will have no problem getting into a ton of colleges. You may run into a problem, however, if this is part of a pattern of weak grades. (As a side note, remember that you still have time to improve your grade before the end of the semester. Ask your teacher for help!)