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Ask the college counselor

When Insideschools staff visits a high school we like to hear about students' hopes for the future. Some say they like animals and want to become veterinarians. Others may like to design and build things and want to become architects or electricians. But these and many other occupations are closed to students who don't take chemistry, physics or advanced mathematics in high school.

A new policy brief by Insideschools and the Center for New York City Affairs at The New School examines the importance of a college-prep curriculum in math and science—algebra 2, physics and chemistry—and how many high school students have access to it across the city. The results are sobering: More than 150 of New York City's public high schools—or 39 percent—do not offer a standard college-prep curriculum in math and science; more than 200 schools do not offer a single Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate class in math or science.

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Can you be a strong college applicant with just three years of high school? Two students in very different circumstances want to know.

Q: I live in Honduras, a country where only a few schools offer four years of high school. I attend a school that has only 10th and 11th grades. As an 11th-grader, I am currently a "senior" and am preparing to apply to Ivy League colleges and the best universities in the US. However, I am not sure if American colleges (especially the most selective ones) will recognize my diploma with only three years of high school. I am a straight A student with solid extra-curricular activities and test scores. Is this particular situation an obstacle to my applications? Or will I have to complete 12th grade in another school before applying?

Q: I attend a very large, overcrowded urban public high school in the U.S. I have taken good classes, including some honors courses, and have a GPA of 3.8 out of 4.0 at the end of my sophomore year. But high school really isn't pleasurable for me, and I am thinking of graduating early. Because four years of English are required for a diploma, I figure I can double up on English next year (which is my junior year). This way, I will meet all the minimum course requirements and can graduate a year early and start college a year earlier. Is this a good idea? Will missing a fourth year of high school count against me?

 

A: Both students have the same dilemma—should they apply to colleges with just three years of high school? If they meet the college or university's entrance requirements, can they apply? Yes. But will they be at a disadvantage? In the first case, perhaps; in the second, definitely!

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Q: I am a sophomore in high school. When it's time for me to apply to colleges, would it be important to list if I had a website? Is that something that could help my application? Also I enjoy writing short stories in my free time. What can I do to show the colleges my writing, if I do not have a portfolio?

A: You are asking two excellent questions. Let's start with the second: You should start to set up a writing portfolio now. Add a story each time you finish one, and also keep a list of ideas you get for stories. Please remember to back up your files—it's heartbreaking to lose creative writing!

As you explore your college options, look for those that have creative writing programs. Those colleges may require applicants to submit an online portfolio. While it is NOT a good idea to send unsolicited stories, poems or writing samples with an application, the common app does have a box at the bottom that says "use this space to tell us anything else you want us to know." There you could talk about your writing, and include a link to your portfolio. Know that unless it's a small school, and unless you are applying to a writing program, admissions officers may not read it.

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Two inquiries came in this week from parents wanting to know how the type of high school their children attend will affect their college admissions. The scenarios are different but the answer is pretty much the same, so I'm answering them together.

1. How important is the choice of high school on college options? We have been happy that our children are doing well in middle school and even happier that they are enjoying it so much. This school will transition into a grade 6–12 next year. But we have heard that, coming out of a new school without an established reputation, they will be seen as less appealing to colleges. Many, if not most, parents around us are in a frenzy preparing for the specialized high schools exam, saying that one of these schools is the only pathway to the best college opportunity.

2. My daughter is a happy freshman at one of the specialized high schools. Her grades are in the low 90s in the humanities and in the 80s in math/science. But at her high school, 92 is like the edge of a cliff: 92 and up means you get to do electives, APs, and have a range of college options. Below 92, you do not. It really seems that binary. Ironically, it seems that her chances at a future with choices would be higher elsewhere. Should we seek to transfer out?

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Q: Our daughter is being home-schooled, so we have a couple of questions about getting her ready for college. Are there AP programs available for home-schooled children or would college classes be an acceptable alternative? Is there a list of scholarships and grants that we can go through to help her financially? Last, are there specific curricula or electives that would aid her in her acceptance or transition into college?

A: Admissions officers ask the same questions about home-schooled students that they ask about students in traditional schools, that is:

1) Can this student handle the academic work at our college or university?
2) What might this student contribute to the life of our college or university?

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Q: I am a junior and all I hear about is how impossible it is to get into popular colleges. A lot of my friends who are seniors did not get accepted to their first-choice colleges and are going to have to attend other schools. This has made me very nervous about what's going to happen to me next year. What do you suggest?

A: As I am sure you have heard, part of the problem is the Common Application, which is both a blessing and a curse. The Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple schools, and the blessing is that it enables students to do this while saving them the bother of writing the same information (except for the essay supplements) over and over again. The curse is, the larger volume of applications sent as a result of the Common Application makes being accepted to any school much more difficult.

Another part of the problem is that students persist in applying to the same colleges as their classmates. They have been advised to diversify the geographical scope of their applications, but they don't listen.

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Colleges' reliance on part-time, "contingent" faculty who work without employment benefits and are generally paid far less than full-time, permanent teachers is not a new problem: It has been going on for over 30 years. But disenchanted part-time faculty—and full-time faculty who agree with them—have become increasingly vocal about the practice.

Not only is the hiring of large numbers of contingent or "adjunct" faculty members poor labor practice, but, according to Professor Ellen Schrecker of Yeshiva University, it affects "the education of most students, especially undergraduates, in a very negative way." Schrecker was interviewed for the February 25, 2015 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education during the week that had been declared a period of national action by part-time faculty. Adjuncts and their supporters wanted to call attention to their working conditions, which usually involve low pay, no benefits, inadequate office space, and little or no chance of promotion. For students, the adjunct situation involves constant teacher turnover, the inability to form meaningful or lasting relationships with teachers and working with a demoralized faculty.

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Q: I've been denied by two schools already and now I'm waiting for the decisions from my other colleges. One school has asked me for my first-semester grades as well as an essay that explains why my grades have been inconsistent. Is this a good sign, or not? I have such low confidence now, and I'm worried about being admitted anywhere. Am I on the right track?

A: This will come as news to you, but ALL colleges to which students have applied—even colleges to which they have been admitted early—ask high schools to send first-semester grades. They want to be sure that all applicants are keeping up with their academics.

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Q: My son is interested in a school that is very popular but has the reputation of not giving students access to "real professors" until the 2nd or 3rd year. Instead, they use a lot of "adjunct" faculty. When I asked the representative of this school about this at a college fair (much to my son's embarrassment), he said, "all our teachers are professors." How do I find out the truth?

A: Remember the TV show that said "the truth is out there"? Well, the truth about adjunct faculty is out there, too, and it's not pretty. Don't expect complete truth from admissions representatives—their job is to bring in as many applications as possible.

Adjunct faculty—also called contingent faculty—teach part-time, maybe one or two courses a semester. They are usually not given the same benefits as full-time staff; they have no health insurance or retirement plan. Therefore, they are much cheaper for the school to hire.

There are two kinds of adjunct faculty: those who teach in addition to their other, regular full-time career, and those who depend upon their adjunct teaching for a living. An example of the first is a lighting specialist who works full-time at a theater but may teach a class on theatrical lighting at a nearby college. This is not exploitation; she is an active professional sharing her knowledge with students, and the college gets someone with expertise that none of their other teachers has. In the second example, teachers—most of whom have masters' degrees or doctorates—are paid anywhere from $1,300 to $1,900 per course, per semester. Obviously, one cannot live on that income, and so the adjuncts need to work at two or three schools to make ends meet.

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Q: I applied under “early action” in November to two schools I considered my “safeties.” I wanted to know that I had at least one acceptance before filing my regular applications in January. I was pretty confident I’d get in, but both schools deferred me—so now I am in a panic. Maybe it’s true and college admission IS getting harder! If my “safeties” deferred me, what chance do I have with the others?

A: Actually, college admissions, despite what you might read in the media, is NOT getting harder. It’s ALWAYS been hard to get into an Ivy League school. But don't panic, admissions is reasonable at many other places, especially outside the Northeast.

The problem today is volume. More students are filing more applications, often to the same group of "popular" colleges. So, while College A may have received 20,000 applications five years ago, today they are getting 40,000. Twice as many students are applying, but College A is still the same size it was five years ago. And why are so many students applying? College A has been advertising and recruiting like crazy. Also, the Common Application makes it so easy to file many more applications than back in ancient times when you had to hand-write a separate application to each school. So College A’s application numbers and selectivity go up, and poor you are suffering as a result.

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