Each spring, thousands of high school seniors anxiously await word on their college applications.
As Miami University president, I brace myself each March for calls from upset parents whose children were denied admission. However, whether students receive the coveted “fat envelope” or a heartbreaking denial letter depends on choices made years before spring commencement.
But these choices are not always obvious, especially this year, as debate over the SAT has confused many students about what top-ranked colleges are “really looking for.”
I recently came across the yellowed, how-to-prepare-for-the-SAT booklet that I used when I was a high school senior in 1960. The recommendations were simple: “Read widely and thoughtfully. Observe the world about you; test what you are learning against the world as you see it.” And most important, start following these recommendations “early in life.”
That's still great advice, not just for taking the SAT exam, but for succeeding in college.
Admissions directors look for students who will earn a degree. A massive 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Research looked at the indicators of college success. The study dispelled some widespread myths.
First, it showed that grades are a relatively weak predictor of college success. Grade inflation is so pervasive in American high schools that nearly all applicants to selective colleges have high marks. The study showed that racial background and socioeconomic status are not strong indicators of college graduation rates. That's good news for a democratic, egalitarian society.
So what does work? The best indicator of college success is the rigor of a student's high school courses.
In fact, the single best predictor of obtaining a bachelor's degree is completing a high school math course beyond second-year algebra.
At Miami, we look for applicants whose transcripts are liberally sprinkled with courses in history, English, foreign language, math, science, and other tough subjects.
We seek students who have sought out advanced placement and honors courses, if their schools offer them.
And what about standardized tests like the SAT or ACT? Actually, research shows they're good predictors of college success, second only to the strength of the high school curriculum.
And in third place is class rank. Students who rank high relative to their classmates are more likely to succeed in college than those who don't.
But none of these measures is perfect, which is why selective colleges look for a combination of attributes in applicants.
Despite their best efforts, however, colleges invariably make admissions mistakes. Some applicants who look great on paper just don't pan out, while others who seemed a long-shot do brilliantly. Some students are poor test-takers, some have personal circumstances that hurt their scholastic record, while others are merely slow to mature.
It is therefore important for students denied admission to a selective college not to personalize the rejection. Human beings are not statistics, and almost any deficiency can be made up by hard work and determination.
However, it is also important for college-bound students to maximize their chances by making the right choices as early as possible.
My advice to students is this: Choose the toughest curriculum that your school offers. Don't choose easy courses in the hopes of padding your grade point average. You won't fool anybody.
Don't fill up your days and evenings with so many extracurricular activities that you don't have time to study. Admissions officers won't be impressed.
And don't worry about standardized tests. If you follow my advice, and if you “read widely and thoughtfully” throughout your high school years, the tests will take care of themselves.
James C. Garland is president of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.