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Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 02/29/2012

College admissions: When high school courses matter most

This was written by Martha Allman, dean of admissions at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

By Martha Allman

College admissions officers around the country are submerged in applications. At this time of year, we are faced with the nearly impossible task of finding the best mix of students for our institutions based on some combination of grade point average (GPA), class rank, written essays, personal interviews, extracurricular activities and, at some schools, test scores.

Since Wake Forest University dropped its SAT requirement and became test-optional with the entering class of 2009, I have found myself frequently cornered in the grocery store, the dentist’s office and the hair salon. My voice and e-mail boxes are filled with urgent questions from prospective students and parents about how to boost their chances of admission. Chief among them: “How can you measure academic performance without the SAT?”

It’s a valid question. I’ve often referred to the admissions selection process as “more art than science.” Colleges must select students who are academically qualified but from that point, it is about class building and adding a variety of individuals that will further the college’s mission and enrich its campus, which is at times a subjective process. However, there are a few gold standards we regard as strong measuring sticks and ways students can help themselves.

Research has shown high school GPA to be the number one predictor of success in college. But, let me be clear that all 4.0s are not created equal. It is all about academic rigor in high school course selection. And realistically, not all high schools are created equal either. There are great students at not so good schools and there are marginal students at superb schools. The students whom we seek are those who have “bloomed where they are planted,” demonstrating academic excellence, character and motivation wherever they are.

That is why selective colleges expect students to successfully pursue the most challenging curricula offered to them. In some high schools, that is the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program, for others it is Advanced Placement (AP), while other schools offer a different curriculum for their most advanced students. Pursuing the most rigorous curriculum signals academic motivation and intellectually curiosity. Excelling in that curriculum suggests that the student is well prepared for academically strenuous college classes and is likely to be a successful member of the campus community..

While considering academic rigor, Supertest: How the International Baccalaureate Can Strengthen Our Schools, written by Washington Post education writer Jay Mathews, is an excellent read . In Supertest, Mathews explains how the IB program has helped transform some of the nation’s most troubled schools, signaling the importance of a rigorous curriculum to prepare students for the challenges of college.The combination of academic rigor, global perspective and a serious emphasis on community and service make the IB program a compelling roadmap to excellence in education.

However, it is important to note that students without IB or AP programs available to them have options, too. Summer enrichment programs in areas such as writing, science and mathematics, many of which offer financial aid and scholarships are wonderful ways for students to expand their minds and their experiences. As a result, they also demonstrate their commitment to investing time and effort into educational pursuit. And of course, reading remains the very best (and the least expensive) way to push one’s intellectual capacity.

From the moment the flood of applications begins in December to the moment we mail acceptance letters in March, admissions counselors evaluate students in the context of where their education is taking place, the rigor of the curriculum, the competition in the classroom and the opportunities presented. We search for self-motivation, self-awareness and a visible love of learning.

It is, however, in the end, an individual evaluation. Taking the most challenging curricula afforded to them, going beyond expectations and exhibiting intellectual curiosity and character speak volumes about students’ determination, motivation and future success. After all, that’s what selective schools really want.

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