Thursday, Dec. 14, at 2 p.m. ET

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David Hawkins and Shirley Bloomquist
National Association for College Admission Counseling
Thursday, December 14, 2006; 2:00 PM

What impact do high school rankings and AP and IB test scores have on college admissions? Is it better to have good grades at a lousy school, or vice versa?

David Hawkins, policy director for the National Association for College Admission Counseling, and Shirley Bloomquist, a former counselor at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, were online Thursday, Dec. 14, at 2 p.m. to answer your questions about how colleges evaluate high school performance.

A transcript follows.

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Bowie, Md.: You guys are here to talk about the impact of AP and IB classes on college admissions. Can you really speak for all colleges since different colleges look for different things? For example, I would expect small, obscure liberal arts schools to care less about AP classes (math & science) while top schools such as MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Ivies, etc. would care much more.

I've found that if kids today don't take AP classes, and enroll in college with hopes of a science or technical major, they will be far behind their classmates as most of them would have taken them already. Kids may be the smartest of their HS class, but they'll find that those in top schools are just as smart, if not smarter than they are, especially compared to international students who are the cream of the crop from their country with more maturity and discipline.

David Hawkins: You're right that different colleges consider different characteristics in the admission process. However, our research on college and university admission processes suggest that among the wide range of factors in college admission, all colleges and universities (whether large or small, highly selective or less selective, public or private) consider the strength of curriculum the number one factor in the admission process. Students are urged by colleges to engage in coursework that is as rigorous as they feel they can handle, and most colleges go the extra mile to consider whether a student has simply larded up their transcript with AP courses, or whether they have engaged in a level of coursework in which they can do well and learn.

Shirley Bloomquist: You are right that all colleges are looking for students that have taken the most challenging courses that they can handle successfully. For me, handling successfully is a grade of B or better. Yes, the most competitive colleges are expecting many courses on the transcript that reflect a level of AP, IB or higher.

For students with limited access to AP or IB courses in their high schools, students should consider taking online AP courses or online community college courses to demonstrate college-level competency and to demonstrate that they will be academically successful at college.

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David Hawkins: My name is David Hawkins, and I am the director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC). NACAC is a non-profit association of more than 9,500 high school counselors and college admission officers nationwide. I appreciate the opportunity to answer your questions and take part in this chat today.

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Bowie, Md.: We can have all the discussions we want about the necessity and impact of AP/IB programs on kids and college admissions today, but this is a 200-ton moving freight train that is not only not stopping, but gaining momentum. The growth in the U.S. population is far outpacing the growth in the number of colleges/universities formed, and the bar is being raised for admissions, as it should be. It's just a reality and fact of life no matter how much we debate it.

David Hawkins: That's true in some ways, though not in others. Our research of admission data over the past 20 years shows that while the most highly selective colleges, and many in the former "second tier," have become more selective, the national average selectivity rate has not actually changed that much. In 1985, four-year colleges (on average) admitted seven out of every 10 applicants for admission. In the most recent year, four-year colleges (on average) admitted 6.8 out of every 10 applicants for admission. So even though the most selective colleges have gotten more selective, the average four-year college selectivity rate has remained stable.

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Shirley Bloomquist: My name is Shirley Bloomquist. Currently, I am working as an independent college counselor. Previously, I was the Director of Student Services at TJ, Thomas Jefferson HS for Science and Technology for six years. I also worked as a school counselor in Scarsdale, N.Y. I look forward to responding to your concerns.

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Southern Prince George's County: Today, before my child is in high school, I have started looking at what colleges are looking for in potential applicants on their Web sites. Some colleges give the profile of their incoming freshmen class and others state that they are looking for applicants who have taken challenging coursework aka IB and AP courses. I would suggest that parents and students begin to look at colleges now to see what college fits the student and how the student will measure up against the college standards. Then the child has a chance to step up to the challenge and/or find a better college fit.

David Hawkins: In fact, most academic research on college awareness stresses the need to prepare students in middle school by enrolling them in coursework that will lead them to the college preparatory curriculum in high school. Students also benefit from hearing about the college application and admission process as early as possible.

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North Potomac, Md.: My son is a student at a very competitive (non-magnet) public high school. With several honors courses this year, he has a low-B unweighted GPA. Weighted, he is in the solid B to B+ range. A lot of his classmates have A averages, both unweighted and weighted.

It is clear that he is an underachiever, in that his standardized test scores (so far a PSAT and several Maryland MSA testings) show he has the ability to be performing at a higher level.

What should his strategy be for applying to colleges? Will applying to colleges that are "off the beaten path" be to his advantage -- where he won't be competing with his 4.0 (or 5.0!) classmates? Or is he better off applying to schools that know how tough his high school competition is? Fortunately, he won't need to ask for financial aid. How, if at all, should that determine where he applies?

Thank you for any guidance you can supply a concerned mom!

David Hawkins: Our members always stress that the college application process should be about the right fit for the student. Colleges are required to post information about their incoming classes, including information about grades and standardized test scores (SAT and/or ACT), as part of their application and recruitment materials. Taking a look at the characteristics of a college's incoming class is always a good place to start. From there, students are encouraged to explore aspects of the college that interest them, such as programs of study, location, campus life, and price.

Shirley Bloomquist: Dear Concerned Mother,

There is a terrific college out there for your son. Bravo to you for considering some of the lesser-known college jewels. All colleges will know how competitive your high school is by reading the school profile, which lists the average range of SAT and ACT scores, as well as the percentage of passing AP courses.

Your son will have an advantage by considering colleges, perhaps smaller Mid-West ones, to which other students aren't applying.

Best wishes. It will all work out.

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D.C.: A lot of this talk is nonsense -- trying to hammer young people into the "college" mold at increasingly younger ages. Forsaking the journey for the destination.

David Hawkins: I think the focus is to prepare students for postsecondary education--of any kind--to allow them to make the decision about whether they want to go or not. I agree that the journey is important, but we also want to be sure that the first part of the journey doesn't leave students unprepared for the next stage.

Shirley Bloomquist: Dear DC,

I agree that adding pressure, causing distress to students, is unhealthy to students academically, physically and emotionally. The balance we try to achieve is to help students strive to do their best both academically and extra-curricularly, while enjoying life's journey. However, we must recognize that some students don't set high goals for themselves and too often don't even consider college as an option for themselves. Today, students must consider college for themselves to be prepared for the 21st Century.

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Arlington, Va.:

I would be interested in hearing your views about some of the shadow side of today's HS students taking too many AP & IB classes. I believe there is considerable anecdotal and research evidence available to suggest that the high stress and pressure that today's "high achievers" experience is a price way too high to pay, now and especially later in life. Learning under such high stress - if not fear-induced -- environments is simply incompatible with what we know about how the brain works... and what it needs in order to learn, remember, perform at peak effectiveness, and enjoy life. My sense is that students are doing more... but accomplishing less -- which is what inevitably happens when the brain functions at 10-20 percent capacity due to stress, sleep deprivation, and associated problems related to depression, mood changes and/or anxiety. I am curious to learn to what degree your guests share the perspective I describe... and what might be done to confront this issue, because there simply has to be a better way to achieve the educational outcomes we all seek. Thank you.

Shirley Bloomquist: I share your concern about "high achieving" students at "high achieving" high schools pushing themselves to an unhealthy degree. When I was at TJ, this was my greatest concern. Three years ago, I moderated a conference at the University of Rochester for 35 college advisors from very competitive secondary schools across the country. Stress from an overload of AP courses was their number one concern.

Some secondary schools are restricting the number of AP courses a student can take; some schools, such as Sidwell Friends, offers a limited number of AP courses. Some very competitive high schools, such at Dalton and Fieldston in NYC, have eliminated offering AP courses partially because of the super stress factor.

If a student is staying up extremely late and becoming sleep deprived, I think the student is carrying too much, either academically, extra-curricularly or both. Talk to your school counselor and work together on a healthy balance.

We want challenges without chronic overload.

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Concerned North Potomac mom, again: I have purchased the "Colleges That Change Lives" book, and have also checked out the related Web site.

A lot of these schools seem to be good possibilities for my son. Do you have any thoughts about the schools recommended, in general?

David Hawkins: The Colleges That Changed Lives project is important because it has opened the door to colleges beyond the "brand name" colleges that everyone seems to hear about all the time. I can't provide specific recommendations (given that there are more than 1,600 NACAC member colleges and universities), except to say that even within the subset of "colleges that change lives," students need to be concerned with fit, and it's important to understand what a student wants out of his or her educational experience.

Shirley Bloomquist: Colleges that Change Lives is one excellent resource for the wonderful student that falls in the middle of the class. I also recommend you consider the plethora of colleges in the Midwest. When considering any college, a statistic that I find very useful is the percentage of students returning for the sophomore year. This statistic tells me how well the college is meeting the needs of its freshmen.

On the US News and World Report Web site there is a terrific list of colleges, with supporting data, entitled "A+ Colleges for B Students."

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David Hawkins: To Arlington, VA:

Years ago, high school students were told that colleges wanted to see lots of extra-curricular activities on their applications. So students went and enrolled in every extra-curricular activity their school offered. After a while, colleges got wise and began stressing that it was the quality of the extra-curricular experiences, rather than the quantity, that mattered.

At least anecdotally, I get the sense that the same thing is happening with college-preparatory coursework now. Colleges would rather see "A" grades in a few AP classes than "B" or "C" grades in 10.

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Bowie, Md.: I have two kids in college. I think it is very important for them to find a school they like. My son liked Virginia Tech from the first time he visited and he's been happy there and very successful. My daughter settled on Bucknell last spring over Richmond because the students smiled more at Bucknell and has been very happy there.

Don't worry too much about getting into the most selective schools. Both Virginia Tech and College Park have honors programs and plenty of opportunity for the best students.

I like AP courses but think they are being pushed too much. I wonder if we are neglecting the art of writing longer papers in preparing for shorter essays on the AP tests.

David Hawkins: Your question about writing is a good one. Poor writing skills have been a subject of much academic and policy hand-wringing over the years. One possible side-effect of attempting to cram lots of coursework--AP, IB, or other--onto students is the loss of focus on more deliberative processes, like writing. Colleges are mindful of that, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the admission process is shifting to seek quality (in course performance) over sheer quantity of coursework.

Shirley Bloomquist: Writing is one of the most crucial skills we need in college and in our careers. You sound like a concerned parent who is expressing a genuine concern. I urge you to attend school curriculum meetings, PTSA meetings or request a conference with the English chair at your school to discuss your concerns. The parent and student voice is a powerful one in schools.

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D.C.: You can cite data all day, but your data doesn't consider the fact that the brilliant kid who doesn't have access to AP/IB classes most likely WON'T BOTHER TO APPLY to MIT or Stanford because he knows he won't have any chance of getting in if his HS only offers trigonometry. Do college admissions officers have the ability to tap into the available curriculum of a high school before rendering judgment on whether or not to admit a kid?

David Hawkins: College admission offices do, in fact, have the ability to access the curricular offerings of a high school. Most high schools maintain what is called a "school profile" document, which outlines the courses available, some data on student performance, class ranking (if applicable), etc. So college admission officers generally have a context for evaluating applications based on school characteristics. In fact, more than half of all colleges re-calculate or re-calibrate student GPAs to account for variations in GPA methods at the thousands of high schools across the country, so their methods in that regard are pretty complex.

Shirley Bloomquist: I hear your frustration about your school offering trig as its final math. College admissions personnel try very hard NOT to penalize a student whose high school only offers a limited number of challenging courses. Often students will find ways to supplement their limited high school courses by taking courses at a community college (if available) or by taking AP or college courses online (which is increasingly popular particularly in rural areas such as the Dan River School District in Virginia). A student who hasn't had high level HS courses but who can show competencies on the SAT, ACT or SAT Subject Tests will greatly impress college admissions people (and all of us).

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Vienna, Va: I've seen a number of posters worrying about the amount of stress many students go through in order to take these AP courses. All I have to say is, they need to be exposed to that academic rigor if they are going to be successful in college. Certainly, there are limits to how much work someone can do and students should learn to value their time. Incidentally, learning to prioritize tasks and complete them effectively is another important skill for college. I went to TJ (Go Colonials!) and I felt that I had been very well prepared going into college at William and Mary. Many of my classmates were completely overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work they had to accomplish. I think that harder high school courses would have helped them prepare for it.

David Hawkins: Raising expectations and the availability of rigorous coursework for all students is an important public policy priority, and I think you've given an example of why it is important. Postsecondary education, whether it is a trade school, community college, or four-year college, is a lot different and more demanding than what many students experience in high school. So the idea that we need to offer challenging coursework to all students so that they can be prepared to make a choice about whether to attend postsecondary education--and actually succeed once there--is critical. We need to better fund our schools, though, so that all schools have the opportunity to provide this coursework and the support that goes with it to their students.

Shirley Bloomquist: You are right that learning to cope with stress and pushing yourself to excellence contribute to success in college and in life. However, when stress becomes distress and a person's physical and mental health are negatively impacted on a sustained basis, the workload is too much and needs to be addressed. The search for balance in life is ongoing. We can manage high-level stress, which I call distress, for short periods of time (for example, AP testing weeks) but not for years.

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David Hawkins: Thank you for your questions. For more information about college admission, visit NACAC online.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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