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Helpful tips about college admissions, test preparation and just being a better student, leader and person from ILUMIN Education.

Filtering by Category: Course Selection




Early Admissions Program

One pattern we’ve observed in recent years is the increasing number of students participating in early admissions programs. According to the College Board (purveyor of the SAT, AP, and SAT Subject Tests), the number of colleges offering an early admissions program has risen from about 100 in the 1990s to around 450 today (see this article critical of this trend).

Early admissions programs, particularly Early Decision programs, are attractive to colleges because they can be more selective in the Regular Decision round of admissions if they’ve already filled many of their incoming freshmen seats with students guaranteed to attend.  For example, during this last admissions season, Johns Hopkins University admitted 591 students applying via the Early Decision program. This represents around 45% of the seats in their freshmen class. And as more and more colleges use these early admissions programs, the pressure to do so ratchets up for those still holding out.

Early admissions programs are also attractive to applicants because some programs confer a significant advantage in admissions. In the Johns Hopkins example cited above, those 591 admitted above experienced a 30.5% admissions rate—their peers applying Regular Decision a couple months later? Around 10.3%. This ratio of a 3:1 Early Decision to Regular Decision acceptance rate is consistent with numbers from other very selective schools such as the Ivy League universities. So students who apply early may have a better chance at their first choice school. Adding to the attraction, students admitted in mid-December can stop working on college supplements early.

However, an early application is not just a free ticket to your top-choice school—academic standards for early applicants tend to be higher than for Regular Decision admits, and students who fall below the 50th percentile for GPA or test scores of a school’s admitted students (and who are not recruited athletes or legacy applicants) should think twice before submitting an early application. In order to assess your chances at your ED/EA college, you should look at the admissions data from your high school. Many high schools use Naviance/Family Connection to gather specific admissions data from their school.

Different types of Early Admissions Programs

But first, let’s back up and discuss the different types of early admissions programs. In general, there are two types of programs, with some sub-categories included in each. Applicants to both types of early admissions programs generally receive their admissions results by mid-December. The three possible results are admit, deny, or defer (to Regular Decision).

  • Early Action—These programs notify students early of their admissions results (generally in mid-December) but are not binding. Students don’t need to attend the school if they’ve been admitted and have until May 1 to hear back from the rest of their potential colleges and to choose the school they will ultimately attend. Examples of schools offering Early Action applications include the University of Virginia, University of Chicago, and Case Western Reserve University.

  • Variations on the Early Action program include Single-Choice Early Action (or Restrictive Early Action) programs, which ask applicants not to apply simultaneously to other Early Action or Early Decision programs. If a student is accepted to a Single-Choice Early Action program, he or she is not contractually obligated to attend.  Most notably, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Princeton have Single-Choice Early Action programs.

    Some schools with Early Action programs, like Boston College or Georgetown University, prevent applicants from concurrently applying to Early Decision (EDI) programs (but not other Early Action or EDII programs)

  • Early Decision (EDI and EDII)—Acceptances to Early Decision programs are contractually binding, and, as mentioned above, more and more schools are offering not only an Early Decision I program (with applications often due November 1st or 15th) but also an Early Decision II program (with applications often due in January). Many liberal arts colleges, including top schools like Swarthmore and Middlebury, have an Early Decision II option in which students hear back by mid-February. Some universities, such as New York University and University of Chicago, also have EDI and EDII programs.

Should you apply early?

In general, students should only apply to Early Decision programs if they are 100% certain they would be willing to attend. Because Early Decision is a binding application, we generally advise that students thoroughly research the school and, if possible, visit the campus before submitting an ED application.  The other caveat we offer is that if students are looking for significant amounts of financial aid, they should probably not submit an ED application (which would only give them access to an offer from one school versus being able to compare different offers and to make a financially sound choice).

That being said, those students who have a clear top choice and do not have major financial aid limitations are encouraged to submit early applications. Students should also consider applying early to some “safety” schools if they offer an Early Action application in order to (hopefully) receive some good news before winter break or to adjust their application strategy with some early feedback from an actual admissions decision.



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Join as many clubs/organizations as possible

Everybody’s experience for college freshman year will be different. But for me, it felt like high school where you start again from the bottom of the ladder except that as a college freshman, you are the special one. Being the youngest gives you an unique social opportunity to join your club sports team/hobbit groups or cultural groups. I still remember at the Activities Fair in the first week, you are invited to join millions of clubs and organizations and meet all kinds of people in various social groups. So shake a leg!

Freshmen year is the best opportunity to find out who your classmates are because it’s when asking “where you are from” and “what’s your name” still don’t sound awkward. It’s also a good time to know yourself better, what kinds of friend groups do you fit in more or what types of friends do you click with more etc. As a lowerclassmen myself, I cannot speak for whether freshmen friends stick around, but I can guarantee that college community is often much larger and much more diverse than high school community. That means you probably won’t be able to know every guy/girl in your grade like you did in high school, and that it’s time to actively reach out to find a community that fits you. And joining an organization/community that you feel comfortable with will help you transition into college much easier and faster.

Study wisely

Having been a professional student for 12 years, you are an expert in your way of studying. Whether it’s watching Khan Academy videos or reading Sparknotes, by the time you enter college you already mastered the art of studying. On top of every useful studying method that you mastered, I would also strongly recommend going to professor's or TAs’’ office hours. Lecture is the same for every student, but in office hours professor’s and TA’s can answer specific questions that you may have in a way that can tailor to your needs. It’s an opportunity to get to know them personally and for them to know more about you. Going to office hours is also a good way to find out their grading style and what to expect as a student. Ultimately, they are the ones who gives you scores for assignments and the final grade.

One good news about college is that you don’t have to do everything that’s assigned to you. For example, textbooks and lectures are often overlapped and teach same things. Doing overlapped studying may help you understand the materials more concretely, but when you are under time pressure, whether you are a visual person or audio person, make sure you study the way that works for you.

One last bit about studying is that it’s never a bad idea to reach out to upperclassmen or older friends who have taken the course before. They know more than you do. Having been through more advanced stages, their knowledge and experiences are extremely valuable resources as you study for your current class or plan for your future classes.

Find your own college life triangle // academics + social life + sleep

There is a saying that every college student only have enough time to focus on two out of three things in college: academics, social life, sleep. I would agree that this is true in many ways. I remember during the first week, I was lying in my bed about to sleep, then I hear music and laughter from the party down the hallway of my dorm. I asked myself: should I go out and socialize with those people in my dorm? What should I do? Is it not a cool thing to do to go to bed early? I checked out the party anyways, but I had a tremendously difficult time waking up the second day morning and staying in class with a huge hangover from the night before. So having a good balance would be really helpful.

Every student’s life triangle will be different, and most likely it will change in different stages throughout college career. But going back to the first point, I recommend social life over two other things in freshman year because freshman year is the prime time to establish friendships. It’s also when you need companionships the most. But in sophomore/junior years when classes get harder, it would be time to study and pursue for your major/degree. Thus, setting a clear priority for what’s truly valuable for you in different stages of college is crucial for planning a college journey that you will enjoy.

-- Joseph W., Junior at Stanford University

High School Course Planning: 5 Things You Must Know

Elton Lin

I often get questions about what classes admissions readers want to see on college applications. And the truth is that a good course plan is important. It will not only make you stronger for college applications, it will make you stronger in college.

Before you sign up for another year of classes, here are 5 recommendations to help you make the right decisions.

1. Know when to compare yourself to others.

When parents tell me about a student they’ve heard about with a 3.8 GPA and just above average SAT score who was admitted to Stanford, my initial question is: from what high school?

You should know that as a college applicant, you’re compared to your peers. When evaluating freshman applications, one of the first things I looked at was high school information. Your GPA will be viewed differently depending on the average GPA at your high school as well as how many honors and AP courses you take in the context of how many are offered, not to mention other factors that can make your academic performance look remarkably different.

Despite being compared to others, you should still be realistic about your ability to manage your course load. If you’re stuck on taking 5 AP courses your junior year because you hear this is how your cousin got into Cornell, but then earn multiple C’s, it will not only make Cornell impossible, it will eliminate so many other college options that may otherwise be a good fit.

2.  Challenge yourself.

On the other hand, earning a perfect GPA with low course rigor is not the path to your best college results. It’s truly better to risk B’s with a challenging course load than it is to maintain straight A’s with a relatively easy course load. When I was trained to read UC freshman applications, I was told to pay attention to rigor. If a student was taking a challenging course load, even the occasional C can be forgiven.

As a consultant, I worked with Charles who earned a 3.5 unweighted/3.9 weighted GPA but had taken all of the AP math and science courses offered at his competitive high school. He wasn’t sure what his college results would be, especially considering his 2000 SAT score, but he was admitted to the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon. Clearly, his high course rigor balanced his relatively low GPA.

3.  Find your direction.

The reality is your prospective major means so much in terms of what classes you should take to be a strong college applicant. If you’re aiming for a top-ranked business school, it would benefit you to include AP US History and AP Gov in your course plan. If you’re applying as an Engineering major, you should plan for AP Physics in your junior year.

A successful course plan can look so different depending on the prospective major. Kevin, a theater major, took AP Psychology, Drama, and AP English. Despite a below average GPA for his high school, his strong performance in these classes contributed to his admittance to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

4. Try something new for your language other than English.

When you’ve grown up learning a language other than English (LOTE), it often means that your academic achievements in that language, even perfect scores on the SAT and AP exams, will not set you apart for college admissions.

I firmly believe that every decision regarding high school planning should not be based on whether it will make a student look good for college admissions. If you are a first-generation American, learning the language of your parents can be a richly rewarding experience that extends beyond college results.

And, there are exceptions to practically any recommendation for college admissions. For example, my student Stella immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan in 9th grade. She struggled to improve her English, and therefore, I recommended she meet her LOTE requirement with Chinese so she could focus on English. Stella made great strides in her English abilities and even took an advanced English course as well as AP Econ and AP Biology in her senior year. Her hard work paid off when she was admitted to NYU and USC.

However, if you aren’t in Stella’s position and want to be as competitive as possible for college applications, enroll in a LOTE that is not the language of your parents during your high school years and “finish” the language by completing courses through the AP level. Taking your time to study - and excel - at a language other than any you were taught as a child is a sure way to strengthen your profile for college applications.

 5. Achieve your balance.

There are going to be certain classes that are easier for you than others. Use this self-understanding to balance your course plan. In other words, if pursuing art isn’t a serious endeavor for you, perhaps you want to plan for a painting class that meets your UC art requirement during junior year as a welcome relief to all those AP math and science classes.

Or maybe, as a business major, you know you want to take AP US History your junior year, so you take AP Environmental Science that year instead of AP Biology, a course that competes with AP US History for requiring the most  memorization.

Another way to look at it is if you have a natural talent for a certain subject area, plan your courses to showcase that talents. I worked with Sandy who wanted to study business and had a passion for learning languages. Through high school and community college classes, she took classes in three languages. These classes didn’t seem like work to her, and her achievement in multiple languages made her stand out for college applications.

The most important perspective you can have when planning your high school courses is knowing what makes sense for you. If you challenge yourself, keeping in mind your strengths and abilities in the context of your goals, you will maximize your college options.

If you have any questions about course planning I'm happy to help. Click here to schedule a free consultation or give us a call at (408) 479-4742.

--Azure Brown