Monday, December 1, 2014

File Reading Part II - Academics and Strength of Curriculum

From January through mid-March, the admissions staff will hide out in our offices and read files during our holistic file reading process. There are six main areas that we look at in our file reading process, and this post covers the second two areas, focusing on a student's academics and the strength of curriculum. While we look at these sections in our initial review of applications, we now look at them in much more detail.

Academic Review

When we look at a student's transcript during the holistic review process, we are trying to understand how a student has progressed over their 3+ years in high school. Have they been consistently strong throughout the years, did they start slow and then jump up to all A's, did they have a tough time in a specific subject, are all their B's low or high B's, etc. We then use this in combination with the other factors impacting their life, from family issues that occurred where we saw a dip in grades to how a student did once they got into a specific AP course. If a student made a D in Geometry in 10th grade, did they bounce back from it or keep on a downward trend. If there is a downward trend or low grade, we also want to know if there were any mitigating circumstances that led to this issue. All of these factors help us understand the overall picture that the transcript gives us.

Three quick warnings/notes on grades: First, we are only looking at core academic work, not PE, Health, Driver's Ed, etc. While your high school may put these classes into your overall GPA, we are not focusing on these course grades. Second, we focus on grades, not on the GPA or rank that is on your transcript. We are looking at how you have done each term in your academic classes, and so when I talk about this area, I try to talk about actual grades. Third, growth in one term, especially the first semester of your senior year, does not count as a trend. If you have B's and C's for three years, then suddenly wake up and start making A's, we look at this, but it is not a grade trend, this is a grade spike. A trend is a relatively constant movement, while a spike is a sudden shift. If you have a grade spike (hopefully upwards), I am wondering why you did not make this jump earlier.

In addition, we will be looking at an applicant's SAT and ACT scores, with a focus on the best subscores from all tests, and using either the SAT or the ACT (with Writing), whichever is stronger. If a student has not done as well on one score type, we will not look at this, but instead we will focus on the "better" score. In addition, we focus on the individual subscores, and with the ACT, we look at the subscores that have shown to predict success in college (the ACT English, Math and English/Writing). We also look at test scores in connection to a student's grades, trying to see if a student has performed in the classroom above or below where the test scores indicate.

Strength of Curriculum

First, don't ask how many AP/IB/Honors/Advanced/Dual Enrollment/Post-AP/TBE (The Best Ever!) classes are needed for admission, because there is no right answer. Instead, look at the academic opportunities both at your school and in your community for the answer. What I mean is, most competitive colleges are going to look at what academic options are available to you as a student, and what you have then chosen to take. What have you done within the context of what is available?

As an example, in two different files, one high school offers 31 Honors courses and 28 AP courses (including at least four language options), while the second has 18 honors courses and 1 AP (with only two languages offered). These are just two examples, and there is an even wider range of options within the 3,000+ high schools from which we have applicants every year. In addition, we are not just counting AP classes, but looking at the depth and breadth of a student's rigor in their core academic areas. I would rather see a student challenge themselves across the board with rigorous classes than to take 4 AP courses in one field, but basic courses in the rest. And don't fall for the idea that you should take the lightest load so you can make all A's, because this is not a good move if applying to UGA, and it is not a good way to prepare for college. Challenge yourself to the level that you can handle, and understand that this is a serious factor in admissions at UGA.

In our file reading, we are not just looking at high school courses, though, but at a student's overall academic challenge. We have applicants who attend college classes in the summer,  take independent study classes in addition to their high school offerings, attend Governor's Honors programs (or similar options) for 4-6 weeks in specialized academic fields, and do independent research in areas in which they are passionate. I still remember the applicant who drove one hour across Los Angeles to take entomology classes (his intended major at UGA), traveled to South America to study insects in the rain forest, and worked with college faculty on research projects. Now, don't run out and start collecting bugs right this minute, but instead understand the broad spectrum of what makes up academic opportunities. In addition, don't suddenly post  replies asking if X,Y or Z activity counts. Just understand that we look at the whole of a student's academic options, and how they have taken advantage of these opportunities.


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