The college admission process can be an overwhelming and confusing process. In addition, there are myths and non-truths that seem to stick around. Be armed with knowledge and accurate information as you plan your pathway to college. If you have questions concerning college admissions, email Quetzal Mama at [email protected].

When should I start preparing for college?

Prepare as early as possible. I recommend parents help their students begin strategizing a pathway to college in the 5th grade. Preparing for college means gaining knowledge – understanding terms, concepts, timelines, and resources available. Second, preparing for college means establishing a long-term strategy – the steps to take in elementary, middle school, and high school, to reach your college goal. Conduct research online, attend workshops, read college admission books, and find any resources that will help you get on your pathway to college. See a list of free Quetzal Mama workshops here.

How many colleges should I apply to, and which ones?

The bottom line is students should apply to as many campuses as they can afford. Students who qualify for Fee Waivers can apply to many campuses without paying application fees. However, middle income students should be selective in narrowing campuses. Quetzal Mama recommends students use her “80/10/10” rule. This means 80% of applications should go toward match campuses; 10% to reach campuses; and 10% to safety campuses. In addition to the “80/10/10” rule, be sure to focus on campuses that offer the desired major, diversify by including a range of public and private campuses, and consider local and out-of-state campuses for geographic diversity.

How much does it cost to apply to college?

Application fees vary by type of campus. For example, the University of California fee per campus is $70, whereas the application fee for a California State University campus is $55. Private schools throughout the US can range from $75 to $90 per school. This includes schools like Stanford, MIT, and Johns Hopkins. The prospect of applying to several colleges may seem financially unrealistic, but it is not. Ask your guidance counselor how you may obtain fee waivers for college applications, and/or contact the university directly. Never assume you cannot afford application fees!

What is the website to apply for financial aid?

The official website for the FAFSA is www.fafsa.ed.gov. FAFSA stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Be careful! There are plenty of scam websites, soliciting payment for their services or attempting to steal your confidential information. Make sure you are at the website of the United States Department of Education. Remember, the FAFSA is free.

Where do I apply?

Great question! If you are applying to a University of California “UC” campus (they have 9 campuses), you will complete an application before midnight on November 30th using their online form at www.universityofcalifornia.edu. If you are applying to a California State University “CSU” campus (they have 23 campuses), you will complete an application before midnight on November 30th using their online form at www.csumentor.edu. If you are applying to a private college, use the convenient “Common Application” found at www.commonapp.org. The Common App is due January 1 each year, with Early Action or Early Decision due November 1. *Some colleges like Georgetown, MIT, and University of Chicago are not on the Common App. For schools not participating in the Common App, visit their respective Admissions website for their application.

I’ve heard getting into college is super competitive. Do I even stand a chance of getting in?

Of course you do! Less than 100 colleges in the U.S. are considered “highly selective.” Highly selective schools generally accept less than 25% of applicants. According to US News & World Report, there are more than 1,800 four-year universities, and close to 4,000 combined 2 & 4 year colleges in the U.S. And, according to the College Board, there are close to 500 colleges that accept more than 75% of applicants! Furthermore, some campuses have an “Open Admission process – which means they accept nearly all applicants who meet very minimum criteria. I recommend students “aim for the stars” but have back-up plans to maximize options.

I looked at the published applicant profile for my dream college. My test scores and GPA are below their published ranges. Should I still apply or forget it?

Reviewing the published “freshman applicant profile” posted on selective college websites can be depressing. However, keep in mind these published profiles are averages and ranges. Students whose stats are below the published averages may gain admission due to other factors. Students are more than their SAT scores and GPA. Many students have unique talents and abilities that cannot be captured by a statistic. Always apply to your dream school. What is the harm, other than the application fee? On the other hand, be VERY practical and economical when selecting your shortlist of campuses. While it’s great to dream big, at the end of the day your goal should be to earn admission to as many campuses as possible with generous financial aid packages. For this reason, be sure to apply to a broad range of safety, match, and reach schools.

The colleges I am interested in are very expensive. I don’t think I can afford it. Should I still apply?

Absolutely! Many students mistakenly believe they cannot afford college. However, there are many forms of aid that are based on financial need including scholarships, grants, federal and state aid. In addition, there are also merit-based awards and privately funded scholarships that are not based on financial need.

What is the PSAT, and should I take it?

The formal name is the Preliminary SAT/National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test. It is a multiple-choice (2 hours, 10 minutes) “preliminary” examination to help students prepare for the SAT and measures (1) critical reading skills (2) math problem-solving skills, and (3) writing skills. Yes, you should take it in your sophomore year and junior year. Taken in the junior year, it is also a qualifying test for the National Merit Scholarship. The PSAT offers a hidden bonus for Latino students – it may be a potential pathway to cover college tuition, housing, and other items. If you score well on this exam and have a high GPA, you may be given the distinction of “National Hispanic Scholar” (NHS).

How should I prepare for the SAT?

First, you should have taken and reviewed your PSAT scores. The PSAT is an exam taken in the sophomore (and/or junior year) of high school. Although you are not required to have taken the PSAT in order to take the SAT, it is highly recommended that you do. Obtain your “Score Report” – a Selection Index that lists scores in each test section from your guidance counselor. Carefully review this report so that you may analyze your results/scores and determine where to improve. Then, sit down and create a one-year strategy for the SAT exam. The strategy should include a methodical course of study, using an SAT study guide (which you can get at the library) and, ideally, enrollment in an SAT Preparation course. You may also visit www.collegeboard.org to review SAT tips and test taking strategies.

Should I pay to take an SAT preparation program?

Only if you can afford it! There are SAT tutors, online aids, summer camps, books, tutoring centers, and preparation programs offered by a myriad of companies and individuals. In addition, the College Board sells study guides on their website and also offers a “Question of the Day” on their website collegeboard.com. For my students, I recommend a classroom-based setting (versus a textbook or online help) that offers live instruction and practice tests to coincide with the timing of the SAT test date. The program should focus on test-taking strategies, not subject-matter content. These types of programs are very expensive (perhaps $1,000), so start asking your tías and tíos for cash birthday gifts instead of gift cards! In addition, some preparation programs allow students to apply for financial aid, to subsidize the program costs. If you cannot afford a formal preparation program, purchase the latest SAT prep guide from a bookstore, or get it on loan from your local library.

Which is better to take: the SAT or the ACT?

Neither. Most colleges accept both the ACT and the SAT. You may take both examinations if you wish – it is not an either/or scenario. ACT stands for the American College Testing and tests students in English, mathematics, reading, and science. There is also an optional 30-minute essay portion. The SAT stands for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The SAT exam is administered by the College Board and tests students in critical reading, writing, and math. Note that the ACT tests students in Science, whereas the SAT does not.

Is it a good idea to take the SAT multiple times to improve my score?

I recommend my students only take the SAT or ACT a maximum of two times. Even the College Board – the company that administers the SAT, recommends that students do not take more than twice. Take the SAT more than once only if you intend to implement a specific strategy such as a test prep course, doing timed tests using the latest SAT practice tests, or getting tutoring.

What is an SAT Subject Test?

The one-hour examination is administered by the College Board and is given in one of 20 specific subject areas. These tests cover five general subject areas: English, mathematics, science, history, and foreign language. The registration fee is $26 plus an additional $18 for each test you take, except for Language Tests with Listening, which are $26 each. In addition, many colleges require specific SAT Subject Tests for a particular major or program. The benefit of an SAT Subject Test is that the exam is based on a particular subject – exclusively on material you learned in your high school coursework (e.g. Literature, French, Chemistry, etc.). Subject tests allow you to demonstrate your strengths in particular subjects or programs of study. Bonus: Some colleges may grant credit for good performance on an SAT Subject Tests, and/or you may place out of introductory college classes. Bilingual students and/or ESL students may have an advantage by fulfilling foreign language competency requirements. Check with the college you are interested in attending regarding their policy on fulfilling the foreign language requirement.

What is the difference between the SAT and SAT Subject Tests?

The SAT and SAT Subject Tests are different types of examinations. The SAT covers three sections (math, reading, and writing) and the cumulative score is used as admission criteria for most universities. The SAT Subject Tests cover a specific topic – like Physics or Spanish. Some universities require SAT Subject Tests, while others only recommend them. See respective descriptions above for details about these examinations.

Should I take SAT Subject Tests?

In general, yes! Some colleges require candidates submit SAT Subject Tests for admission consideration and/or class placement. Some colleges only “recommend” that students take them. Although a college may not require a Subject Test(s), it is a great way to demonstrate mastery in a particular subject matter or program of study. See the FAQ above regarding advantages of taking a Subject Test.

When should I take my Subject Tests?

Since these tests are based on knowledge and mastery of a particular subject, you should take the Subject Test immediately following completion of the respective high school course! For example, the Mathematics Level 2 Subject Test covers math content only through trigonometry and pre-calculus. Therefore, register and take your Mathematics Level 2 test right after you take pre-calculus. Don’t delay taking your examination as many of the concepts may not be “fresh” in your mind.

Which SAT Subject Test should I take?

You may take as many of the 20 Subject Tests offered. However, the best strategy is to take the exams recommended for the colleges you are applying and to take exams aligned with your intended major. For example, if you are especially interested in History (and you are receiving an exceptional grade in your AP US History course), you would definitely consider taking the US History Subject Test. Note that colleges have different requirements and preferences. Read what Stanford says about which Subject Test they prefer:

-We do not have a preference for the specific SAT Subject Tests you elect to take. However, if you elect to take a math test, we do prefer to see the Math Level 2 test if you feel that your math background has adequately prepared you for this test.

My friend keeps talking about her “applicant profile.” What is an applicant profile?

You may not be familiar with the “applicant profile” because is not a tangible thing, nor is there a formalized ranking system for this profile. There is no section on the college application that says, “Please insert your Applicant Profile here.” Instead, it is a cumulative representation of you – the non-standardized things that may set you apart from other candidates. The Applicant Profile is a complete picture of a college applicant. The profile takes into consideration all applicant factors such as grades (GPA), class rank, test scores, school attending, extracurricular activities, awards and distinction, special talents, geography, socio-economic status, gender, and ethnicity.

If I have a high GPA, does that guarantee I will be admitted to selective colleges?

No. College admission is based on many factors, not just the GPA. In addition, a high GPA achieved through non-rigorous coursework will not be nearly as impressive as a strong GPA via AP, IB, or Honors coursework. Although you should focus on obtaining the highest grades possible, you should also consider other factors such as discipline-specific activities, extracurricular activities, solid SAT and subject matter test scores, community and volunteer experience, cultural authenticity, and crafting a stellar Personal Statement.

My counselor says as long as I take the A-G requirements, I will get into a selective college. True or false?

False. While it is true that you will be on the pathway to get into college by taking the A-G requirements, this plan does not include four critical components that should be part of your academic strategy for selective colleges. The four critical components designed by Quetzal Mama, include (1) Graduation Requirements, (2) College Preparation Requirements (A-G in California); (3) Discipline-Specific Preparation; and (4) Private/Selective University Preparation.

I’m receiving lots of letters from selective universities, encouraging me to apply. Does receiving these letters mean I have better chance of getting in?

No. Universities send out many “stock” letters to a large group of students who meet only minimum criteria. Enjoy the letters, but do not read into your competitiveness as a student. However, if you receive direct communication, specifically addressed to you, that is a different story!

What if my high school does not offer AP or IB Classes? Will that mean I will have less chance of getting into a selective college?

Unfortunately, not all high schools offer an AP or IB program. While you may not be able to control the program offerings within your designated school boundaries, you can control how you supplement your education. Keep in mind that selective colleges expect students to challenge themselves, to the extent possible. This means students will not be “dinged” because they were unable to take rigorous coursework, since their campus did not offer such a program. Don’t settle for a less competitive program of study! Figure out an alternative plan to enroll in rigorous courses, as this will also help you to be more prepared once you begin your undergraduate studies. I recommend that students with limited AP/IB opportunities pursue online or local community college courses. In fact, on the Common Application, the first part of the application asks, “List all college/university affiliated courses you have taken since the 9th grade . . .”

I’m trying to write my Personal Statement and I’m stuck. What can I do?

First, relax. Many students panic when it comes time to write their Personal Statement. Attend a Quetzal Mama personal statement workshop to learn key strategies to write a compelling essay. If time does not permit and you’re down to the wire, Quetzal Mama’s got you covered. She created her book, “Nailed it! Quetzal Mama’s Toolkit for Extraordinary College Essays” just for students like you. Find it on Amazon and Barnes & Noble (link here!)

Do I have to be a United States Citizen to apply to a college?

No. However, your immigrant status may impact your ability to obtain federal aid or state aid (depending on the state you reside), and it may impact how much you are charged for tuition. See individual college websites regarding AB540 students, Dream Act students, International students, and Non-Resident student tuition/fees.

I need help with the college admission process. Where do I go, and who do I ask?

Quetzal Mama is here to help! Schedule a workshop in your city by having your middle or high school principal, counselor, community organization, or parent contact Quetzal Mama at [email protected]. If you are located outside of California, ask about a convenient webinar or Skype session. Get help! If you cannot bring Quetzal Mama to you, you can learn EVERYTHING you need to know about college in Quetzal Mama’s books (in English and Español):

El Vuelo de la Mamá Quetzal:
Cómo Criar Hijos Exitosos Y Preparalos para las Mejores Universidades

Nailed it!
Quetzal Mama’s Toolkit for Extraordinary College Essay

Flight of the Quetzal Mama:
How to Raise Latino Superstars and Get Them Into the Best Colleges

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