PrepWell Podcast


Ep. 228 | More Of This…Less Of That

Which college admissions issues should be prioritized?

In this week's podcast, I continue a game we played a few months ago called "More of this...less of that".

What are the college admissions issues that should be getting more attention versus some that should be getting less?

  1. GPA vs ECAs
  2. Academic programs vs campus amenities
  3. Sports vs ECAs
  4. School year vs summer
  5. Volunteer work vs real job

Listen to this episode to make sure your priorities are pointing in the right direction.

Show Transcript:

Hello friends, and welcome back to the PrepWell Podcast. Today we're playing another game of too much of this. Two little of that. We play this. A few months ago, it became a pretty popular episode, so I thought I'd revive the game with some new examples. In this game, I point out parts of the admissions process that get far too much attention, versus parts that get far too little attention.

For example, the school year versus the summer, the school year, too much attention. The summer, too little attention. Most people are rabidly focused on what happens during the school year, with classes and clubs and GPAs, and who got the lead role in the play. And did we win the county Championship or not? And the terrible math teacher, while they give comparatively little attention to what happens over the summer, where there's actually more time and freedom and options to make massive strides in personal development, I would say 90% of the focus seems to be on the school year, versus only 10% on the summer.

I think it might be better to get a little bit closer to 5050. If you approach the summer with as much intensity as the school year itself, the sky is going to be the limit. Sports versus extracurricular activities, sports. Too much attention, extracurricular activities, too little attention. We've all seen and experienced the psycho parents yelling and screaming at the refs, yelling at the opposing team, yelling at their own children, politicking to get their daughter on the best, a team spending nearly every weekend at a tournament or a showcase or a game or a match or a meet, oftentimes flying to far flung places, booking expensive hotel rooms.

It's an obsession. I found that not as much attention is paid to non sport activities. Things like school clubs, church groups, chorus, community service jobs, internships, shadow sessions and the like. I know families do spend some time and resources on these activities, but in general it seems to pale in comparison to what is spent on sports where all bets are off.

No expense is too great, no tournament is too far, no amount of exposure is enough. Unless your child is a legitimate Division one prospect in their sport. My guess is that some of that sports attention could be, or should be shifted over to other extracurricular activities. Next is volunteer work versus a paying job. Volunteer work too much attention paying jobs, too little attention.

I see parents spending four times the amount of time and energy facilitating volunteer work and community service, compared to the amount of time they spend helping their child get a job. And yes, it's true that most of the volunteer opportunities arise when our kids are younger and they need more of our meddling, if you will. But it seems our involvement really slows down when it comes time to job hunting.

Why is that? If it's based on the belief that colleges focus like a laser on how many volunteer hours your child has done a 100 hours versus 200 hours or more, then students would be wasting a lot of time. Colleges don't put any more value on volunteering per se, than any other activity, including jobs. I would argue that a student will learn a lot more and get a lot more credit from colleges by holding down a significant and legitimate job while in high school, as opposed to having a seemingly endless list of volunteer hours at unrelated organizations.

I'm not suggesting to drop all volunteer work. I just want to make sure that everyone knows that there's no magic number or no magic amount of credit that students get for volunteer hours. They are not given outsize credit by admissions officers, whereas real hands on work can be a differentiator. Let's move on to GPA versus AP scores GPA to much attention AP scores too little attention.

I spend an inordinate amount of time getting into the weeds on students GPAs. Is it a 4.1309 or a 4.13 for four? Is it weighted? Is it unweighted? Does it include ninth grade or exclude ninth grade? What if my school isn't on a 4.0 scale and only does letter grades? And on and on and on. Too much emphasis?

Yes. Grades matter. Yes. Taking rigorous classes and doing well matters. But in the big scheme of things, high schools have wildly different profiles, especially when it comes to grading with big differences in quality and rigor of their academic offerings. So colleges are reluctant to put too much weight into a number like a 4.4 versus a 4.2. When they get your file, they will establish an immediate impression of what type of student you are by the school you go to, how much you challenged yourself with rigorous courses and your grades in a split second, but they reserve their final judgment until they see your AP scores.

Obviously, if you took AP exams or AP classes, they really care about your AP exam scores. Why? Because they can't always know what type of grade inflation is going on at every high school. It's too complicated to figure out there are ways to work the system. An AP score. On the other hand, an exam score graded by an anonymous reader who doesn't know the student they're evaluating often gives a much better picture of a student's academic confidence in that area of study.

So if you spend every waking minute obsessing about your GPA out to the fourth or fifth decimal point, but you don't put a lot of work into your AP exams, and you don't get a four or a five, you may fall prey to this common imbalance. The moral of the story here is AP exam scores matter much more than grades.

Admissions officers would rather take a chance on a 3.8 student with fours or fives on their AP exams, than a 4.28761 student who didn't submit any AP exam scores. So think about your priorities. How about campus amenities versus academic programs? Campus amenities? Too much attention, the actual academic programs, too little attention. When I ask students what they thought about a particular college when they finished their campus tour, I without fail hear the following I loved it.

I love the buildings. I love the architecture. I felt like I was in a Harry Potter movie. The landscaping was immaculate. The student union had a rock climbing wall. They give away free pizza slices on Friday afternoons. The library has big leather couches. Every dorm room has a big screen TV and on and on and on and on.

What I rarely hear is the campus was beautiful, but what we really enjoyed was the Honors College. It has its own dormitory and classrooms and labs. The student professor ratio was small, the resources and the facilities were top notch. Every student gets a guaranteed internship. There is a mandatory semester abroad. They attract world class guest speakers to address the class.

Every quarter. The professor's only responsibility is to teach the honors classes. There's no pressure to publish, so they really focus on the undergrad. There are no teaching assistants. All of the classes are taught by full professors, and on and on and on. I would love to see less emphasis on the look and feel of the campus and its recreational amenities, and more emphasis on the types of academic programs offered in your intended major, and how you see yourself getting a lot of value out of those programs.

Next is traditional activities versus nontraditional activities. Traditional activities, too much attention, nontraditional, unconventional activities, too little attention. I hear a lot about the following activities robotics club, recycling club. Photography club. Newspaper club. Social justice club. Yearbook camp counselor, model UN, student government, babysitting. At some point, admissions officers see these activities so much they become white noise. I'm not suggesting not to participate in these things, but a lot of emphasis is put on them as if they are the be all and end all.

Whereas I here decidedly less about entrepreneurship, small business startups, Toastmasters, starting your own podcast, taking online classes, studying for and sometimes actually taking the Lsat, the mCAT, the GMAT, a CPA exam, writing a book, organizing a symposium, fundraising, building something with your hands, inventing something, launching a YouTube channel, working in the circus. I don't have anything against the traditional activities, but I always urge my prep bowlers to consider less traditional activities, which often lead to more growth, more inspiration, and more credit from the college admissions officers.

Next is grades versus extracurricular activities. Grades. Too much emphasis. Extracurricular activities. Too little emphasis. And yes, I fully acknowledge that without good grades, a lot of doors will remain closed. Good grades are a must to get through the first screen. At most competitive colleges. However, a pathological obsession about grades and for instance, being tormented by an A-minus that you got in sophomore year English class because you think you deserved an A is counterproductive, especially if this obsession distracts you from a more potent part of the application, which is your extracurricular activities list.

At the end of the day, whether you have a 4.1 or a 4.3 GPA pales by an order of magnitude compared to the quality of your ECAs, your extracurricular activities. In other words, if one student has a 4.3 GPA but has a generic, common, unconnected, and uninspired list of extracurricular activities, they will be passed over by a student with a 4.1 GPA, with a lot of essays that are unique and unconventional and compelling and connected to their intended major or career interest, it won't even be a debate.

So yes, strive to get the best grades you can, but don't overemphasize their importance. Don't obsess about them. And don't let them distract you from putting equal, if not more, attention toward your extracurriculars. Next is internships versus actual jobs. Internships. Too much attention. Real jobs, too little attention. I know the word internship has some weight to it. It really strikes a chord with a lot of people.

It sounds serious and sexy and what you should be doing. And yes, there are traditional internship programs out there with good reputations and probably do some good. But please don't bet your entire college application on landing some kind of plum internship, especially at the expense of getting an actual job. For one, there aren't that many internship programs out there that do what they purport to do.

In theory, internships give students an opportunity to embed themselves in a particular career, field, or occupation where they can observe the inner workings of how real work gets done. Maybe they get assigned a project or two over the summer. The reality, however, is that most internships aren't particularly well organized. They're a pain in the neck to coordinate, and they end up often being not particularly fruitful.

They often turn out to be a lot of smoke and mirrors. Compare that experience to getting an actual job where you have to submit an application. You have to submit a resume, fill out a W-2 form, go through formal training, have a background check, get assigned a supervisor and a uniform. You have to show up at a certain time and place.

You get a paycheck. That often prompts teenagers to wonder where all their money went. The answer is taxes, no matter what the job is. Whether flipping burgers at an in and out or saving lives as an ocean lifeguard, a real job brings with it some gravitas because you're dealing with the realities of life in all of their beauty and disgust, and that often gets you more credit in the eyes of an admissions officer than does a superficial, made up internship that doesn't challenge you very much.

Okay, I think we'll cut it off there for today. I have a bunch more, but I think I'll save them for a part three. The moral of the story here is to be careful where you aim your fire. There are only so many hours in the day. You can't do everything. I want to make sure that you're spending your valuable time and money and resources and attention on the things that will move the needle, not the things that you hear about in school or that you see on the internet.

Remember, school administrators and the internet often give you what I call LCD, the lowest common denominator advice if you are a high aspiration student who wants to compete following LCD, lowest common denominator advice will not get you where you need to go. If you want to go where everyone else is going, do what everyone else is doing. If you want to be an anomaly, start acting like one.

As always, if you want my help trying to help your child chart their anomalous path, feel free to reach out to me and we'll set up a coaching call. That's all I've got for you today, folks. Thank you for tuning in. Thank you for your continued support. In case you didn't know, this podcast supports Preble Academy's online mentoring program, where high schoolers and their parents receive weekly videos from me, or I break down important topics and give timely advice about college admissions, particularly for top tier colleges, service academies, and for ROTC infotech scholarships.

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I'd love to hear from you until next week. Goodbye! Good luck and never stop preparing.

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Podcast Host:

PrepWell Academy's Founder, Phil Black, has spent a lifetime cracking the code on the world's most competitive programs: Yale University, Harvard Business School, Navy SEALs, Goldman Sachs, Entrepreneurship, Shark Tank (2X), etc.

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