Last year, when my 16-year-old was a freshman in high school, we attended his school’s open house. I was interested in meeting his teachers and getting an idea of what his school day was like. It was more intense than expected. I was surprised how many teachers used their allotted time to discuss our children’s college prospects. My son’s algebra teacher urged parents to sign their kids up for the upcoming PSAT (Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test), even if they were mere freshmen. “The more familiar they are with the test, the better they will do when it matters. If they see the test three times, imagine how easy it will be for them.”
He lectured while looking around the room at the parents, many of whom were feverishly taking notes. The teacher went on to stress the importance of PSAT/SAT/ACT tutoring. “You need to be thinking about this now. It’s never too early” he bellowed. I had a headache and was jonesing for some red wine and a bit skeptical. Still, we signed our son up for the PSAT the following week.
At times it seems education is no longer the point at local high schools, even some middle schools. Instead, they seek to help kids develop a résumé of high test scores, advanced-placement classes, and impressive grade-point averages to impress colleges. If education happens along the way, great. If not, well, getting them to college is the real point. And it’s hard to blame them. San Diego State University, which was once viewed as a party school, boasts an average 1174 SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) score from incoming freshmen. University of California San Diego’s incoming class of freshmen scored an average of 1350 on the SAT; University of San Diego freshmen averaged 1290; Point Loma Nazarene, 1210; Stanford’s students scored an average of 1520.
California University Requirements
The aim for all California high schools is for their students to meet eligibility requirements to go to a California State University school such as San Diego State or a University of California institution. Eligibility is based on three requirements. First, students need to pass 15 high-school courses with a C or above. These courses include two years of history/social science, four years of college-prep English, three years of college-prep Math, two years of laboratory science, two years of a foreign language, one year of visual or performing arts, and one year of a college-prep elective. Second, for University of California schools, the minimum grade point average is 3.0 and for California State Universities, 2.0. Lastly, students must take the ACT Plus Writing or the SAT Reasoning Test by December of their senior year.
Public school kid
Seventeen-year-old Megan Williams isn’t considering any of the San Diego colleges. She is a senior at Grossmont High School in El Cajon, where only 45 percent of the graduates meet University of California and California State University eligibility requirements.
“There is a ton of pressure on kids nowadays,” Williams exhales, pushing a strand of blond hair out of her eyes and sipping a latte. “From a young age we are told, ‘You need to get good grades so you can get into a good college!’ Even in middle school I remember someone telling me that colleges will now look at your middle-school grades. It’s crazy. There is a lot of pressure today because there is more focus on everyone going to college. College isn’t necessarily for everyone, but people don’t mention that.”
Williams is confident, but not in an overbearing way. As long as she can remember, she has been labeled “the smart girl.” “It has just sort of carried on throughout middle school and high school. At this point, it would be weird to be anything different. That is one of the things that will be strange for me going off to college. I am going to be in classrooms full of the smart kids. It will be interesting to adjust to that,” says Williams with a laugh.
The pressure to succeed, Williams says, does not come from her parents. “The more I succeed, the more pressure I put on myself. Going into high school, I told myself, I am just going to do my best. I am going to take the classes I want to take, and if I do get Bs, that will be okay. Last year, I almost got a B in my history class. I kept telling myself, It’s okay! It’s okay to get a B, but really, I wasn’t okay with it. After experiencing a pattern of success in school, I expected to continue that pattern. I have never gotten a B in a class before.” She grins and looks down at her hands as if embarrassed to admit this accomplishment.
Williams began taking her first advanced-placement classes her sophomore year. In total she took 11 such courses at Grossmont High School. In the spring, students taking advanced placement courses take tests. If they pass the tests, they receive college credit. These courses can be beneficial when applying to college because it shows schools that the student can handle a college course load. Not all universities give credit for advanced-placement courses. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, does not accept credit for advanced-placement calculus. They require students to retake the course no matter what they score on the calculus advanced-placement exam. Most Ivy League schools do the same.
Advanced-placement courses have become increasingly popular. What began as a modest 11-course offering for privileged students in 1952 has morphed into 38 high school advanced-placement college classes for United States students. In 2013, 26.9 percent of California public school kids took advanced-placement courses. Some argue that advanced-placement classes overload students, many of whom become overwhelmed by the coursework. While colleges like to see that their prospective students have taken advanced-placement courses, it doesn’t necessarily give applicants a leg up. Universities are more concerned with SAT scores and extracurricular activities than seeing advanced-placement classes on a student’s application. In Williams’s case, she saw these courses as a way to challenge herself. “I have always wanted to do well in school — well enough that I could go to whatever school I wanted to. The summer before my junior year, I went on a college trip and we saw schools like UC Berkeley, which is a super-competitive school. At first I wasn’t sure I would be able to make it because it is so competitive. After junior year and doing so well and getting a really good score on the SAT, I was, like, Oh, wow! Berkley is actually an option for me! I am now able to consider schools I didn’t think I would be able to.”
Williams received a 2320 on her SAT on the old testing scale from 2015 which was out of 2400. Her school’s average score is 1504. (The 2320 converts to a 1570 in the new system.) In order to achieve that score, she took a weekly SAT prep course during the fall of her junior year. The course was taught by Mickey Plummer through a company called College Success Network, based in East County. The nine-week class included eight students and cost $585.
“It was intense. We did a ton of prep work. I liked taking it because it forced me to keep on top of it. I think I took the class for six or seven weeks. There were a few nights where I would have cross-country [running]and SAT class. I would get home and had to do all my homework. It meant a couple of late nights. I think it paid off in the long run. I would recommend it.”
Williams is optimistic but not naive about her college prospects.
“My reach school is definitely Stanford. No matter how good your grades or test scores are, there is no guarantee of getting in.”
She’s right. Stanford’s acceptance rate dropped to 4.6 percent in 2016.
“I am also applying to Harvey Mudd, USC, UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbra, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.”
Acceptance rates at these schools, though higher than Stanford’s, are still low: Harvey Mudd in Claremont (37 miles east of downtown Los Angeles) is 12.9 percent; 16.5 percent for University of Southern California; 18 percent at University of California Los Angeles; University of California Berkeley —17.5 percent; University of California Davis — 42.3 percent; University of California Santa Barbara — 35.9 percent; Cal Poly San Luis Obispo accepts 29.5 percent.
When asked how she’d feel were she to be rejected by those schools, Williams responds, “I think it will be hard. With schools like Stanford that I know are a reach, I am trying not to get my hopes up. I am trying to be realistic and tell myself that, chances are, I will not get in. Their acceptance rates are so low, but it will definitely hurt a bit to get a rejection letter from them. I think since I am excited about all the schools I am applying to, as long as I get into a few of them, I will still be happy.”
Williams knows that colleges like a well-rounded student. She has participated in outside activities that will beef up her applications. “I have done cross-country and track since freshman year. I am also part of G-crew, which is a club on campus. The summer before my junior year and this last summer I volunteered at the Reuben H. Fleet center as a camp counselor. I have over 300 hours of community service there.”
As far as her future, “I am planning on studying engineering in college. Last year I took AP Physics Mechanics and I fell in love with the class and the subject matter. I thought it was super interesting. With my interest in physics mechanics, in addition to my interest in math, I thought engineering would be a really good field for me. The job market for it is wide open.”
The Charter School Student
Twenty minutes away, situated on the University of California campus, I meet high-school senior Lizbeth Guzman at the Preuss School. The Preuss School UCSD is a middle and high school for low-income students. To be eligible for admissions, students must be the first in their families striving to graduate from college and also meet federal guidelines for income eligibility. For example, if a student comes from a family of four their household income must not exceed $44,123. According to Greatschools.com, Preuss boasts a 100-percent graduation rate. Ninety-five percent of graduates meet the UC/CSU requirements.
Guzman firmly shakes my hand and welcomes me to her school while maintaining eye contact. She behaves more like an adult than a high school kid. Guzman opens two doors for me, one to the school office and the other to the second-floor library where a few students mill around bookshelves.
When Guzman was in fifth grade, attending Carson Elementary school in Linda Vista, her teachers encouraged her to apply to Preuss School.
“A lot of teachers told students who they thought could perform well in a vigorous curriculum that Preuss was a very good school. I have always really liked learning. My parents taught me that I should look towards education. They both immigrated from Mexico and they didn’t have these opportunities. Both of my parents dropped out of high school. I know that, with education, I can get a career and become a professional and life will not be as hard.” Guzman says, her brown eyes big and serious. We are sitting at a long table located near the front of the library.
“I was only ten years old when I applied to Preuss. It was challenging. I had to write a few essays and submit work I had done that had been graded by a teacher. They asked for test scores. I had to get a teacher recommendation, a principal recommendation — it was a lot.”
Prospective students were invited to attend the lottery to see if they made the cut. Guzman and her mother went to Preuss to hear the names called out. She remembers the day vividly.
“I don’t think I realized how big of a deal it was until I saw my mom’s face when we found out I got in. When I saw her face, it made me really happy to see that all of our hard work had paid off; not just everything I had done, but her encouragement and her interest in my education.” Guzman smiles proudly.
“I know kids that I grew up with who went to our local schools — Montgomery Middle and Kearny High School, a lot of my family members go there. For example, my brother went to Scripps, and he ended up going to community college because his school didn’t really advertise college to him. Everyone had to do it on their own. At Preuss, from the moment we walk in, they say, ‘You are going to college.’ To me, I have never doubted that I will go to college.”
At Preuss, beginning in sixth grade, every student is placed in an advisory program. There are four advisory teachers for each grade that oversee around 30 students. That teacher sticks with them until senior year.
“My advisor, Mrs. Hawk, she really knows me. She can write us recommendation letters that are very specific as to how we have grown throughout the years. Some teachers can say how much they have watched you grow throughout a year, but she can really talk about what I have done for seven years. She tells us about scholarship opportunities. She helps us with writing. If we have a personal problem at home, we can talk to her. She is a college counselor and like a mom. She is great,” Guzman gushes.
There is also a college advisor who sends out emails to students on different programs and scholarship opportunities
“She is constantly emailing us different programs we can take advantage of. I have applied to some of them. For example, I went to Cosmos, which is a summer program. I stayed at UCSD for four weeks. I stayed in one of the residential halls. I got to work with professors at the university. I got to do my own research. It was really eye-opening,” Guzman says.
She has already been awarded a few scholarships to help with college prep.
“I was sponsored through Bridge for Kids. The program is all about helping low-income first-generation college students. I was given $5000 to spend on education. They paid for my SAT prep classes. My sponsor paid for me to go to a programming camp at UC Santa Barbara where I coded for a week. I am in another program called the Kuni Scholars. Through them, I go on company visits. We do etiquette training. It basically prepares us for life after high school through meeting people who work for companies and learning how to get a job. We learn how to speak to adults and how to introduce ourselves,” Guzman explains.
Guzman’s SAT score was a 1260 out of 1600. Her cumulative GPA is 4.1.
“I don’t have one dream school, I have three: Harvey Mudd, John Hopkins [in Maryland, 11.4 percent acceptance rate], and Princeton [in New Jersey, 6.5 percent]. At Preuss we apply to CSU and UCs first. Then they help us apply to privates after that. The CSUs I am applying to are SDSU [34.2 percent], Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Fullerton [42 percent], and Long Beach [34 percent]. For UCs I am applying to UCSD, which has a really great sponsorship with Preuss. They give us the Chancellor’s scholarship. If we get accepted to UCSD we get a full ride. Obviously, that is one of my top choices because of the full ride. I am also applying to UC Davis, Berkeley, and Santa Barbara.”
Guzman has filled out her college résumé with plenty of extra-curricular activity. “I am president of the Midnight Mechanics, the robotics club here at school. I do a lot of volunteer service through robotics. I tutor at-risk students. I volunteer with my church on Sundays. I have also fed the homeless downtown at the St. Vincent de Paul center,” she breathlessly lists before adding, “I don’t play sports. I used to play squash, but then I decided to focus more on robotics and dedicate more time to that, because I knew that was what I wanted to do in the future.”
As for her future, like Megan Williams, Guzman would like to pursue a career in engineering. “I definitely want to get a degree in electrical engineering and, possibly, start my own business. That has always been very appealing to me. Being part of the Midnight Mechanics robotics team here at Preuss really gave me a lot of insight into what I wanted to do. It was really challenging. We have to build a robot in six weeks. We have to fundraise. We have to talk to sponsors. We have to plan events. That really opened my eyes to the fact that not only do I want to work on the engineering aspect, but I also really like the event organizing, budgeting, and working on the business aspect of the team as well.”
When asked what will set her apart when colleges look at her application, Guzman says with confidence, “I think being a first-generation college student, with my parents’ story of how they immigrated here from Mexico and not completing high school and me having to teach myself a lot of things, them not being able to help me with my homework...that has been difficult. Having to learn a lot on my own and study independently has taught me a lot and given me the opportunity to become more independent. That will help me stand out.”
The Private School Kid
Regents Road separates Preuss from La Jolla Country Day School, a preschool–12th grade private college-prep school. Tuition for high school students is $30, 920 a year. By way of comparison, it’s $7084 for nine months for a full-time undergraduate at San Diego State.
La Jolla Country Day sits on 24 acres. They have three full-time college counselors on staff and a handful of parent athletic liaisons. The school offers 21 AP classes. In the 2015–2016 academic year, La Jolla Country Day gave out $4.8 million in financial aid. Josh Reyes was the recipient of some of that aid. Ninety-seven percent of his tuition is covered, and he is bused in from his College Area home. He has attended the tony prep school since ninth grade.
“My mom always wanted me to go to a good school,” Reyes says. “She believes that the school really does matter in shaping a person. I think she was worried about me getting in with the wrong people. I wanted to go to Helix because their football is really good, but I wouldn’t have had as much playing time as I do at La Jolla Country Day. I play both [offense and defense] all game, which is nothing to complain about. It’s so much fun. I am really happy I went to Country Day.”
Reyes has been playing football since the age of seven. He is a three-year starter for the Torreys. He plays center and defensive tackle, a big deal for a kid who is only five feet three inches tall. When asked if he is more academic- or sports-minded, he says, “I am more athletic. I didn’t put pressure on myself about college. I just tried to keep my grades as high as I could and made sure they weren’t too low. I had the consciousness that if they were terrible it was going to be really hard to get into college. I don’t like to worry too much about the future, but now that I am a senior, I am trying to think more about it. At La Jolla Country Day it’s not that stressful because the counselors help you out. It’s more the nerves about whether you are going to get in or not,” Reyes says with a grin.
He says he appreciates the class sizes and the opportunities he receives from attending a private school. “At the public schools near me, the class sizes are 30-plus; at Country Day, the biggest class I have right now has 16 kids in it. That is my math class. The teachers are easily accessible. They are your own personal tutors — who is a better tutor than your own teacher? If I need help I just meet with them.”
Reyes’s cumulative grade point average is a 3.1. He’s taken the SAT twice.
“I didn’t have a goal number for the SAT. I studied for it the second time and I got an 1100 out of the new 1600. I took it twice because I wanted to do better on it to receive more finical aid, because they do merit-based scholarships. My goal is to get as much of my college tuition paid for as possible. I filled out the FAFSA [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] as soon as it turned midnight on the East Coast the day it came out, October 1st. The counselors stressed it a lot. They let me know when it was coming out.”
If a school accepts him, Reyes will then learn what his financial aid packages are.
“I am applying early admissions to Whittier College [61.9 percent acceptance rate] and the University of Redlands [66.4 percent]. I am applying mostly to small liberal arts private schools: University of La Verne [46.6 percent], University of Puget Sound [79 percent]. Those are schools a lot like La Jolla Country Day: they are well rounded, they are not focused on one thing, they make you take classes in art and whatnot.”
Whittier College’s average SAT score for incoming freshmen is 1100. Meanwhile, Redlands’ average SAT score for students admitted is 1140. Reyes’s athletic abilities might prove helpful in landing him a spot at one of these schools. He has been in communication with several college-football coaches.
“Most of the schools I am applying to are Division 3. At a Division 3 level you can’t get any scholarships, so all the kids who are playing at the Division 3 level are playing because they love the sport. I think that is pretty cool.”
Apart from football, Reyes plans on emphasizing in his college applications the service trips he has gone on. He has been to Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and the Guiana Islands. “I went to the Dominican Republic with my school. We are required to do 40 hours of community service. [La Jolla Country Day] takes the sophomores to the Dominican every year. Sophomore year, you have a choice: you can go to the Channel Islands, the Dominican Republic, or Zion. For our trip to the Dominican, we brought baseball equipment for the kids. For the service part, we went to an elementary school and helped them learn English for a week, because tourism is such a huge thing there.”
So far, Reyes hasn’t viewed the application process as stressful. He has received help through counselors at school. “For the most part, a lot of the schools I am applying for run through the common application. What that is is that a bunch of schools decided instead of having you fill out a bunch of different applications and answering the same questions, it’s just one application and there is one main essay you have to write that you submit to a bunch of different schools. There are different prompts you can choose from. I chose the one where in 650 words you write about your interests and what you like to do.”
Reyes explains that La Jolla Country Day School hired a professional based in the Midwest to look over all the students’ college essays and applications to offer advice and guidance. “For the most part, the process of applying to schools was kind of easy. It’s just filling out a lot of questions and writing an essay. I mean, the counselors we have make it easy. They tell us what we gotta to do and by when.”
But, he admits, “I am nervous.”
The expectation is that all graduating seniors from La Jolla Country Day School go on to four-year universities, and good ones at that. “A lot of the kids that go here apply to Ivy Leagues.”
The graduating class of 2016 saw students off to six of the eight Ivy League schools: Yale, Brown, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton, and the University of Pennsylvania. Of the 116 graduates, 113 of them went on to four-year universities.
Other than graduating from a four-year university, Reyes doesn’t know where he sees himself in the future. He is uncertain on what he would like to major in.
“I am just going to go and enjoy the time. I am tired of high school. But at the same time I don’t want to leave because I will be on my own and that is kind of scary to think about.”