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Why Applying to College Is So Confusing

GPA. AP. IB. SAT. ACT. SRAR. Common Application. Teacher recommendations. Personal essay. Test-optional. Application deadlines. How do all of these factor into the college admission equation?

Seniors are in the throes of college applications and decisions, and juniors are preparing for their own journeys through the college admission cycle. Many students (and parents) are left feeling overwhelmed and confused by the college admission process, even more so since the pandemic.

College Counseling

To help navigate and clarify the process, we asked our experienced college counselors—Catherine Odum, Jonathan Woog, and Jordon McRae—what some of the most frequently asked questions are from our students and parents:

1. What are some of the changes in college admissions since COVID-19?

  • Even though most colleges use the Common Application, many schools also have their own set of additional questions that require students to do extra work for each school. Students must pay attention to each individual school’s requirements.
  • Many universities now require students to fill out complicated forms (SRAR/SSAR) to self-report all their high school classes and grades; they are not using transcripts submitted from our office.
  • Many colleges are test-optional, and this adds an extra layer of confusion for students who now have to figure out whether or not to submit scores and also how to submit them.
  • Colleges have been changing their application deadlines. Some are making deadlines earlier, some are adding additional deadlines. It is critical for students to pay attention to what each college’s policies and requirements are.

2. Does graduating from Country Day really help with college admissions?

Yes! Colleges around the country understand that Country Day is a rigorous college-preparatory high school. They know our students have learned to read, write, compute, analyze, compare and contrast, and think broadly and deeply.

3. What does “test-optional” mean? Does it mean standardized test scores don’t need to be submitted? Does it lower chances of getting in even if it’s a "test-optional’ school?"

Standardized testing is being de-emphasized in college admissions, and many colleges are now “test-optional” – which means the college allows the student to decide whether they want to submit their test scores as part of their college application. Standardized testing, however, is still required at many colleges, especially public universities. Review a current list of colleges and universities that are test optional.

While doing well on the SAT/ACT is one of many factors considered in college admissions, the student’s academic performance at Country Day is the most important factor. Students are advised to take one ACT and one SAT their junior year to determine which test is best for them. Some students will choose to do test prep (and we maintain a recommended list of tutors), however, we strongly encourage students to take advantage of the free test prep available online via the CollegeBoard (SAT) and ACT.

4. How many schools should students apply to?

There is not a perfect number. We advise students to apply to at least two schools in each of these categories:

  • “Reach” – Schools that you think are hard to get into, but you want to give them a shot anyway.
  • “Possible” – Schools where you aren’t a sure thing, but you have a reasonable shot at getting in.
  • “Likely” – Schools where you’re pretty sure you can get in.

5. Does Early Decision enhance chances of getting in?

Yes – usually. At many private liberal arts colleges, applying Early Decision does play a big role. Some colleges enroll close to 50% of their applicants through Early Decision.

6. How important are grades?

Colleges look at performance in individual courses. Many colleges do not use the Country Day grade point average and recalculate students’ GPAs according to their own formulas. Colleges recognize rigor and Honors/AP/IB classes and student performance in each class. The transcript should show growth over time.

7. Do students have to take AP or IB classes to get into college? Is one better than the other?

No! A student does not have to take AP and IB courses to get into a “good college.” Colleges like to see students appropriately challenging themselves as much as they can in high school. Rigor of curriculum is important, but students need to be reasonable with their academic choices and have balance.

There is no “best” choice—students should choose the best fit for their learning style. Students who choose to take an AP or IB class are often asked to do a lot of reading and analytical writing.

8. Do colleges expect a certain number of Honors, AP or IB courses?

No. Course selection is highly individualized. Students should try to increase rigor in their curriculum according to their individual strengths and interests each year they advance through the Upper School.

9. What about extracurricular involvements?

Colleges want to admit students who will be contributing members of the college community, people of integrity and character. They want students who have made an impact in some way. They like to see students contributing to the good of someone/something besides themselves. They like students who have played sports, performed in theater, or worked a part-time job. Colleges easily see through “resume building,” so students should stay authentic to what they enjoy doing. It is best to maintain a sincere commitment to a manageable number of extracurricular activities in high school.

Colleges also recognize that many extracurricular activities were unavailable during the pandemic and they understand that students may have had fewer opportunities than in past years.

10. What is your number one piece of advice?

Keep an open mind. There are over 3,000 colleges and universities in the US, and there are so many places where students can be happy and successful. There is no magic formula for getting into a specific college and there isn’t one “best match” for students. They may think there is, and parents may think there is, but really there are so many schools where students can achieve their academic and personal goals. Be willing to explore and think outside the box.

11. What advice would you give to parents whose child didn’t get into their dream school?

Give them a hug and tell them you are proud of them and that you love them. Reassure them that a college admissions decision is not a reflection of their self-worth or a prediction of their future success. Just be there to support, encourage, and make sure they know that you’re not disappointed in them.

12. What resources do you recommend to students?

The College Counseling BucsNet page has a lot of great resources and information. Also, colleges developed many helpful virtual resources during COVID to help students explore their campuses online.

The college search and application process is complicated, but Country Day families do not have to navigate it alone. The College Counseling Office is here to help with every step along the way.

College Counseling Team

Meet our college counseling team:

Jordon McRae, Assistant Director of College Counseling, (704) 943-4692 | E-mail
Catherine Odum, Director of College Counseling, (704) 943-4683 | E-mail
Jonathan Woog '98, Associate Director of College Counseling, (704) 943-4684 | E-mail