Want to Go to College?

High school strategies can make it possible

by Amy Madsen on July 1, 2007 - 10:02am

QUEST Vol. 14, No. 4

So you think you want to go to college. Or maybe you haven’t quite made up your mind, but at least you haven’t ruled out the possibility of continuing your education after high school graduation.

If college is even a blip on your educational radar, take steps right now to keep your options open later. And if you’ve already decided to go on to college, these tips will help make the process easier.

In the beginning…

The most important bit of advice is not so much to start the application process early (because how can you start early if you don’t know if, when or where you want to go?), but simply to make sure you don’t create obstacles for yourself that you can’t overcome later.

One obstacle you don’t want to face is the effect of bad grades and a low grade point average (GPA). Although GPA is only a small part of an admissions officer’s decision, it nevertheless provides clues to what can be expected from you in your college career.

“Having muscular dystrophy, I’m not able to be in the labor market, so I knew I’d have to be able to get a desk job,” says Tom Bailey, a senior at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Bailey, who has Becker muscular dystrophy (BMD), adds, “I knew I’d need good grades in high school to get into college, and I knew I’d need college to get a good job.”

Students with neuromuscular diseases may worry about the impact of poor grades caused by disability-related illness, surgery or depression.

Although there’s no standardized “special circumstances” form, the application essay can be one way to explain what happened. Additionally, your counselor can write a explanatory letter to include with your application. Sometimes this turns a perceived disadvantage into an advantage, as admissions officers get a chance to see how applicants faced challenges and overcame them.

Beyond grades

Grades aren’t the only consideration, however. As the application process grows ever more competitive, college admissions officers are giving increasing weight to the difficulty of classes taken throughout high school.

Tom Bailey took Advanced Placement (AP) German in high school, and his younger brother Tyler, a high school senior, will be taking AP Spanish this year. Tyler, who also has BMD, hopes to follow in his older brother’s footsteps by attending the University of Tennessee after graduation. He says school counselors advise that having more difficult courses on your transcript is a definite advantage when the time comes to apply to college.

Another way to keep college options open is to participate in high school extracurricular activities — something former MDA National Goodwill Ambassador (1996-1997) Benjamin F. Cumbo IV highly recommends.

Ben Cumbo
Ben Cumbo says all college students have a fear of doing on their own but, "We just need to give ourselves a little credit, and put ourselves out there." Right, Cumbo goes over paperwork with Professor Elizabeth Osborn.

Cumbo, who has BMD, says it’s not just a high SAT score or GPA, but rather a combination of things that serves to set applicants apart. A sophomore at St. Mary’s College of Maryland in St. Mary’s City, he says you must seize opportunities to “be as unique as you can be.”

Cumbo cautions against spreading yourself too thin, instead focusing on one or two particular activities.

On his own college applications he wrote about achieving the rank of Eagle Scout in the Boy Scouts of America, as well as the fact that he’d written and published a novel. He recommends participating in student government, volunteer opportunities and early internships as a means to gaining experience and skills, and making your application package more attractive to college admissions officers.

Starting the process

Freshman year of high school isn’t too early to take pre-college examination tests such as the PSAT, SAT or ACT, which assess students’ abilities in math, reading, vocabulary, science and reasoning. Colleges and universities have different test requirements, so knowing where you want to attend will help you determine which test or tests you need to take.

Although schools don’t require you to take these tests more than once, many students take them multiple times to get familiar with the structure and content in hopes of maximizing their scores.

“The ones who are really trying to get into school take it multiple times,” Tom says.

Tom took the ACT three times in his sophomore, junior and senior years. Tyler has already taken the test twice and says he plans on taking it as many times as it’s offered his senior year.

Cumbo took the ACT once before taking the SAT three times on his route to St. Mary’s.

No matter how many times you take them, two important considerations are preparation and accommodations.

Numerous organizations, such as Kaplan, Princeton Review and Ivy Bound, offer resources, classes and tutoring for test preparation.

When registering for exams, don’t overlook the availability of accommodations for test takers with disabilities. Both the SAT and ACT provide for an extensive array of accommodations — everything from extended testing time and additional breaks, to recorders/writers, specialized computer equipment and large-print answer sheets.

The testing companies overseeing these exams can provide information on accessibility options, eligibility requirements and guidelines for completion of supporting documentation, with both printed and online test registration materials. Any student with a neuromuscular disease should take time to check out the list of available accommodations prior to registering for an exam.

Applications and the dreaded essay

Official college Web sites usually have an admissions page listing admission procedures, requirements and deadlines, and providing application forms with instructions. This information also can be obtained through your high school counseling office, or by calling or writing the college directly.

Most find filling out the applications more “a matter of time” than anything else, says Tom Bailey, although you may want to ask parents, friends or college counselors for help, as his brother Tyler plans to do. 

Although it inspires fear in college-bound students everywhere, those in the know advise looking at the college application essay not as a hurdle to get over, but as an opportunity to highlight your best qualities and sell yourself to the college you wish to attend. 

Cumbo says the essays are a chance to be original and “show them you’re not some automaton or robot.” He advises essay writers to be honest and refrain from mentioning details that can’t be backed up. 

“But if there’s something you strongly believe in, write that down,” he adds.

This may include writing about your disability.

Cumbo says he wrote about his “daily struggle with MD,” not as a means of gaining sympathy, but to “give them a unique perspective.”

No matter what you write about, make sure to put a lot of time into writing and proofreading your essay. Remember, it’s an opportunity to set yourself apart from the competition.

When it’s all said and done

By taking care of the details along the way, you’ll keep your options open and be able to attack the application process with the knowledge and confidence that comes from being prepared.

Depending on the college, you may receive a decision on your application right away, or you may have to wait several weeks or even months. At the latest, you should hear something by March, which allows you one month before the National Candidate Reply Date of May 1 to make a decision on whether to enroll.

And then it won’t be long before you receive what you’ve been waiting for — a fat, official-looking envelope in your mailbox containing the much-anticipated acceptance letter from your new school.

"The College Game," July-August 2007 Quest

"College Prep Resources," July-August 2007 Quest

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