What to Look for In a College-Prep High School
BY HAILEY HUDSON JANUARY 2019
Getting into college is no walk in the park. More and more employers are beginning to require a four-year degree; in many ways, a bachelor’s degree is the new high school degree. And that means, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, that the overall enrollment at postsecondary institutions grew from 25% in 1970 to 40% in 2014. As enrollment rates continue to rise, colleges are forced to be choosier about who they accept, and your high school student might have trouble getting into the school of their choice.
Some colleges are harder to get into than others, but all colleges are selective. And the field is only becoming more aggressive: In 1990, the University of Pennsylvania accepted 41% of its applicants, but in 2017 it only accepted 10% (U.S. News data).
Are you worried about your child’s college chances? If so, a college prep high school could help. A college prep high school will look good on a student’s transcript when it’s time to apply to college. More than that, it will help them excel after they’re accepted. Here’s what you need to look for in a college prep high school.
How does the school’s curriculum prepare students for college? Take a good hard look at the high school’s curriculum and how it prepares students for college. Does the school offer AP classes? These challenging courses will give students a better idea of what to expect in college courses and will help students cultivate good study habits pre-college. Look for teachers who will encourage thinking and reasoning skills. Make sure students can do math problems up through college algebra, and that they’re strong writers so they can tackle college essays. Writing will be extremely important in college, so find a high school with a good English program.
SAT’s and similar standardized tests are important, but don’t let them overshadow the importance of everyday classes. “In accordance with ongoing studies of standardized testing, we encourage students to stretch themselves in our most rigorous classes, as test scores have been shown to correlate with the academic rigor of students’ schooling,” says Martha Eubanks, director of college counseling at Stratford Academy in Macon.
ACE (Academy for Classical Education) in Macon also puts an emphasis on their curriculum, teaching students about hard work and structure. “Through book studies and small group discussions, teachers routinely focus on practices and behaviors that will encourage students to be responsible for their work,” says Laura Perkins, co-founder and principal. “ACE requires students to write often across all classes . . . the Saxon math curriculum used from kindergarten through Algebra I provides a solid math foundation and builds upon that foundation for the upper division math. The study of Latin also contributes to a better understanding of literature and math.” Perkins concludes that ACE strives to teach its students “to navigate the kinds of expectations they will encounter in college and in life.”
Does the school have a strong college counseling program? Most college prep schools offer a college counseling program, where a college counselor partners with a student throughout all four years of high school and guides them through the process of choosing a college. “Stratford’s philosophy of college counseling is that a successful college application process is the consequence of an excellent secondary education rather than the purpose of one,” says Eubanks. “Accordingly, our college counseling program is integrated closely into students’ academic progress.”
College counselors will typically spend extensive time with a student and the student’s family, getting to know the student and his or her interests. A counselor can help a student identify his or her top college choices, fill out applications to those schools, and complete applications for academic and athletic scholarships. This is an area where private schools have an edge over public schools. Whereas guidance counselors in public schools often have hundreds of students to oversee, a smaller private school with multiple college counselors on staff will have a smaller student/teacher ratio, giving your student more undivided time and attention. Maybe your high school student wants to stay in-state for college, is looking for a school with a good science program, and is interested in playing college soccer. At a private college prep school, the college counselor will have ample time to listen to these requests and help your student find the perfect school.
A good college counseling program starts freshman year, not senior year. “We begin working with 9th and 10th graders by encouraging them to identify their interests, goals, and strengths as they pursue their secondary education,” says Eubanks of Stratford’s process. “We focus on advice for making good decisions in course selection, building strong relationships with teachers, making a standardized test plan, and pursuing two or three passions in and out of class.” These are all steps along the path to the ultimate goal: Filling out college applications senior year.
As you search for a prep school, ask how heavily the school involves parents in the college admissions process. It’s important to keep parents in the loop of communication, but at the same time, students should be encouraged to make their own choices. Many high schools will also host college workshops—these daylong classes might include information about scholarships, local schools, and other details that students and parents alike need to know.
How does the school prepare students for the SAT? The SAT is a standardized test that is often used for college admissions. The SAT was first presented in 1926 as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, and it evolved into the test high school students across America dread today. Many students take the ACT—a comparable standardized test—instead of (or in addition to) the SAT. The tests are similar, but have a few differences: The ACT contains a science section while the SAT does not, and the ACT’s math portions focus more on geometry whereas the SAT is largely algebra-based. Because of the way final scores are calculated, math is more important on the SAT, and students who aren’t as strong in math might consider the ACT instead. A good college prep high school will tell you all of this . . . and it will do its best to prepare students for whichever standardized test they choose.
“ACE Scholars are exposed to vast amounts of reading materials over the course of several years, through which students are able to strengthen and grow their vocabulary as well as strengthen their intellectual stamina, which is needed when reading long passages on AP exams and the SAT and ACT,” Perkins says.
Stratford focuses heavily on test prep, too. “Our testing support for students begins with early practice: all 9th and 10th graders take the PSAT, and all 11th graders are invited to attend extra support sessions for several weeks before the PSAT-NMSQT, the National Merit Qualifying exam,” says Eubanks. Most students take the SAT or ACT multiple times (beginning in their junior year) in order to attain the highest score possible. The college counseling office at Stratford provides students with a list of SAT and ACT tutors, including Stratford faculty and local tutors, as well as national test-prep companies. Many experts recommend four to 15 hours of studying for the SAT each week.
What else does the school do? Colleges also look at the extracurricular activities that high school students have participated in. Grades on a transcript don’t tell the whole story—it’s the time spent studying for the math bowl, the hours mentoring younger students, and the “Best Teammate Award” during basketball season that show what kind of person a student truly is. Look for a college prep high school that offers plenty of extracurricular activities for your student to get involved in. PrepScholar suggests that high school students divide their extracurricular activities into three categories: Academic activities, community service activities, and “personality” activities that incorporate the student’s favorite passions or hobbies. Colleges look for well-rounded students, and participating in diverse extracurricular activities is a great way to demonstrate this.
Thinking about college can be daunting. But by helping your student find a good college prep high school, you and your family will be well prepared.