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Who Gets In? What's behind good grades, test scores?
Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Grace Bacharach has a lineup of college-level courses she plans to take before graduating from Oakland Catholic High School next year.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Grace Bacharach.
Click photo for larger image.

Grace, 17, a junior, also is taking an SAT preparation course from The Princeton Review to get her standardized-test score as high as possible.

The high-honor student is trying to put herself in the best possible position for the competitive college admissions process -- and perhaps for an especially difficult-to-get slot in pharmacy school.

As college admissions officials tell it, she's doing a good job.

Grades and standardized-test scores remain the most important criteria in the college admissions process -- but it's the story behind them that matters most to admissions officials.

Christine Bell, associate provost and director of admissions at Carlow University, said a high grade-point average wasn't necessarily enough to pique her staff's interest.

She said admissions counselors want to see that students took rigorous courses in building the high GPA. If some of those courses correspond to the student's intended college major, so much the better.

Grace has all of that down pat. She's taking college-level chemistry this year and plans to take college-level biology, calculus, government and physics next school year.

With older siblings who have navigated the college admissions process, Grace said she was well aware that admissions officials look for rigor on high school transcripts.

Her older siblings took an SAT prep course, so Grace signed up, too. If the special problem-solving techniques boost her score, that could make all the difference in a crowded application pool.

Ms. Bell said Carlow also would look for signs of motivation and discipline, believing that students with those qualities will succeed in college, especially if they'll be living away from home for the first time.

If students show a record of improvement after a slow start in high school, that's a good sign, Ms. Bell said.

But senior year matters, too, she said. If seniors let their grades slip, that may signal a lapse in dedication.

Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Kathleen Baker teaches the Princeton Review SAT prep class at Chatham College.
Click photo for larger image.
Ms. Bell said test scores are another way to evaluate a student, a way to test what the high school transcript shows.

"So we never look at just one or the other," she said.

Duquesne University sees high demand for slots in certain programs, such as pharmacy, and that makes high grades and test scores essential for admission, said Paul-James Cukanna, executive director of admissions.

In fact, he said, students applying to the pharmacy program now have to meet higher standards than applicants of earlier generations. Extracurricular activities may complement a student's academic record but don't ever compensate for it.

Duquesne not only looks at the rigor of a student's high school curriculum but also wants to see whether the student in other ways has built a foundation for college work.

A student intending to major in a science field, for example, should have taken a full sequence of related classes in high school.

Because so many prepared students apply for admission, he said, the school isn't likely to give a slot to a student who has catch-up work to do. He said there is no guarantee a student could transfer into a program once on campus, either.

Besides building a solid high school record, students might be wise to consider showing their potential in a college setting.

The state Department of Education made $5 million available to school districts this semester for "dual-enrollment" programs, which allow high school students to simultaneously earn high school and college credit for college-level courses. Classes are on college campuses, giving students an early taste of the college experience.

Terrence Carlin, assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, said such programs also give colleges a special opportunity to evaluate prospective freshmen. Instead of examining high-school transcripts and making educated guesses about student performance, admissions officials can review college grades and students' performance in a campus setting.

Dual-enrollment grades provide an extra tool for admissions counselors in an era when some high schools no longer rank students academically, even though many colleges continue to consider class rank in the admissions process.

In some cases, Mr. Carlin said, admissions officials will call a high school and try to get some idea of an applicant's rank. In other cases, he said, rank may be inferred from a student's GPA and course work.

Carnegie Mellon University uses minimum GPA and test scores to create a pool of prospective freshmen, then uses other factors to determine who gets in, said Michael Steidel, director of admissions. About 75 percent of applicants probably can do CMU work, he said.

Grace has attempted to position herself for this aspect of competition, too, taking part in a range of activities to show she's well rounded and devoted to community.

She has participated in lacrosse, swimming, tennis and student council. She's spent time with disabled children as a member of the Interact Club, and she's raised money for Habitat for Humanity. This summer, she plans to put on a tool belt and work at a Habitat job site.

First published on February 15, 2006 at 12:00 am
Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.
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