Friday, March 8, 2013

Friday Mad Science: How I Got Into College (Part 1)

This week’s Friday Mad Science is gonna be a little different.  First, because there’s nothing in the news this week that I feel like talking about.  But also because folks have been asking me recently about getting their kids into college and about scholarships. It’s come up in conversation a bunch, and so since it seems like there’s not much else going on, I thought maybe I’d take some time and tell my story and give my thoughts on the rest of it... for whatever they’re worth.  I don’t know that I’m some kind of expert on either getting into college or getting your kid a scholarship, but I had kind of unique experience, and I’m happy to share what I learned.

Whatever I learned about getting into college, I learned from one of the girls that I swam with back in High School in Tampa.  She was a year ahead of me in school, and she got into Dartmouth, and I remember that my folks were just mesmerized by that.  So as I was entering my junior year in High School, my folks had her mother over for dinner and picked her brain on the process.  I then used that process myself, and I managed to get accepted to Harvard, Annapolis, and, of course, the Military Academy.  So that’s my background here, take it for what it’s worth.
Grades + Something Else
Before we start, let’s acknowledge that getting a scholarship and getting accepted at an Ivy League school aren’t exactly the same thing.  In many cases, these events might coincide, but getting a scholarship is fundamentally about being very good at something, whereas getting into an Ivy is more about being smart and being very good at something else, too.  How do you prove that you’re smart?
  1. GPA
  2. Class Rank
  3. SATs and/or ACTs
  4. Other standardized tests, taken as necessary
It’s easy enough to go online and find out what a given school’s average SAT score is and from there determine whether or not your kid is likely to make the cut.  From there, however, I think it gets a little murky.  
For example, I was surprised at how important class rank was to the process.  But if you think about it, it makes sense.  Different schools figure GPA and honors weighting in different ways, so if you are a school that, bottom line, only wants the best students when compared to their peers, the only real way to see who those kids are is to consider where they finished compared to their peers.
This proved a little tricky for me personally because I transferred from Fallbrook Union High School in Fallbrook, CA, to Chamberlain High in Tampa, FL, between my sophomore and junior years.  Chamberlain used a completely different honors weighting system than FUHS had, and more to the point, they refused to accept any transferred honors credit.  So just by moving, my class rank fell from tied for 1st to 26th, out of somewhere between 550 and 700 student at both schools.  So I had to report my final class rank of 26/650—not bad, but not necessarily Harvard, either—but I made sure to report my un-weighted GPA as my primary because using the weighted one wasn’t doing me any favors.
Which brings us back to the premise.  To get into an Ivy you have to have grades and whatnot, but lots of kids have that.  So what you really need is all of that stuff and something else.  
So yeah, I was only 26/650, and I could make an argument based on my un-weight GPA.  But more importantly, that wasn’t all I had.
How Fast Is Fast?
So yeah.  I also swam.
I achieved a AAAA time in the 100 yard butterfly as a 14-year-old high school freshman and went to Western Zones, where I did well.  Then I hit a plateau.  But I loved swimming and kept at it, and eventually I broke through and made my Junior National cuts in the summer before my senior year of high school.  
To be fair, though, there are a lot of kids who make it to Juniors.  In fact, if you make it to Zones as a freshman, the expectation is that you will make it to Juniors as a junior or a senior.  So in that sense, all I really did was hang in there with my peer group.  I went to Juniors twice, and I got into the Consolation finals a couple of times there, but that’s about it.  I certainly didn’t set any records at Juniors, nor was I pushing to make it the Big Time, i.e. Senior Nationals[1].
Still, if you’re wondering whether or not your kid is fast enough/good enough to earn an athletic scholarship to college, I’d argue that making it to Juniors is a pretty good benchmark.  One of my other friends made it to Juniors and went to Pitt on a full ride, and as I remember it, a lot of the Division I schools that Army competed against were populated primarily by folks like me, who had made Juniors cuts but weren’t particularly close to making Seniors.
As I remember it, I was fast enough to get recruited by pretty much all of the Division I schools except those that had really elite swimming programs.  Part of that was probably because I had swimming and grades, but still…  My mother really wanted me to go to the University of Tennessee, but I didn’t even consider it because, frankly, I would have been lucky even to walk onto their Swim Team, and I wanted to swim.  Tennessee certainly wasn’t gonna offer me any money for swimming.  LSU, however, didn’t have nearly as strong a program, and they did recruit me.
Take that for what it’s worth.
Well.  That’s about all that I have time for today.  We’ll pick this up again, either this weekend or next week, depending on how the weekend goes.  
Next time, we’ll specifically talk about how you go about getting recruited, about recruiting visits, and about making your final choices.  Or, at the very least, we’ll talk about how I did that stuff, anyway.

[1] Most sports have some kind of Junior National competition, for the best kids in the country, 18 years old and under.  Senior Nationals is similar, but it’s for the best of the best, with no age restrictions.

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