McGraw-Hill Education ACT 2017 (2016)
Part V. APPENDIXES
Appendix 1. WHAT’S NEXT?
Once you have successfully tackled the ACT exam, you will still need to deal with the rest of the admissions process. This appendix is meant to provide some useful hints and suggestions to help you make the best decisions about what colleges and programs to apply to, as well as how to maximize your chances of getting into the college and program of your choice.
CHOOSING THE BEST COLLEGE OR UNIVERSITY FOR YOU
There are many resources out there that include lists of the “best” schools. The truth is that there may be several “best” schools for you as an individual and you may not be a good fit for any of the so-called top schools that appear on those lists. There are positive and negative features of all colleges, and the final decision is up to you and your parents. Our goal here is to provide some food for thought as you make your decision. The following are some factors to consider when choosing a school. As you will see, there are many areas where the factors overlap.
The largest university campuses are in the 35,000 to 50,000 student range. They are small cities unto themselves with their own fire departments and police forces and their own streets and power plants. At the other end of the spectrum are small colleges with just a few hundred students, which are smaller than many high schools. Of course, there are campuses of every size in between.
It is possible to make some generalizations about large versus small campuses. Large campuses tend to have more interesting activities and a wider variety of resources such as libraries and museums. There will be people from all walks of life and from many different places in the world. Large campuses are just more exciting for students than most smaller schools are. On the negative side, large campuses typically have terrible parking problems. For example, one large Midwestern school takes in over one million dollars every year just in parking ticket fines. There also can be more serious crime issues with large schools. Predators of every sort are sometimes drawn to places where there are many young people who may be less vigilant about personal security and theft prevention than they should be.
Another negative is the fact that many students at large schools find that it is increasingly difficult to graduate within the traditional four years. Graduation times for a first bachelor’s degree are closer to five years than four at many schools. This means one extra year of tuition, and room and board expenses, and one year fewer of making money working in your chosen field.
Many students want to stay close to the support system of their parents’ homes. They like the idea of visiting on weekends and of short travel times back and forth. Other students like the idea of striking out on their own and becoming self-reliant. One of the negatives of being far away can be the expense and inconvenience of travel during holiday breaks and other time off. Also, there is the issue of residency to consider. At most state-supported colleges and universities, nonresidents pay a much higher rate for tuition than do residents. The difference in cost can make a state school just as expensive as any private school.
Climate is another factor that falls within the general topic of location. If you are used to surf and sun, think twice before you enroll at a school where summer is defined as “three months of bad sledding.”
Another way to look at location is to realize that there are three general types of campuses: rural, suburban, and urban. Each has its own advantages and disadvantages, which you should carefully consider before selecting a campus where you will probably be spending much of your early adulthood.
Several financial factors need to be considered. For some students, at some campuses, tuition is not the most important financial factor to consider; housing is. There are some college towns where a student can expect to pay an amount each month for housing and parking that is equal to his or her parents’ house payment back home. In many such places, it is simply cost prohibitive for a student to own a car. In fact, some campuses are so short on parking that they actually forbid undergraduates from having cars on campus. Make sure that you can afford the rent at the college that you select so that you don’t end up living on toast sandwiches, oatmeal, and ramen noodles for four years.
There is also the issue of financial aid, which is a significant question for many students. Make sure that you contact the financial aid office at all of the schools that you are seriously considering to find out about loans, scholarships, and grants that might be available. Do not assume that your family is too well off for you to qualify for aid. Some scholarships are not need-based and can be awarded to students based solely on other factors such as academic performance or standardized test scores.
A school’s reputation is the most subjective factor to consider. Some schools are so famous that everyone has heard of them. Many more are known only to specialists in a specific field or industry or to people in a certain geographic area. Maybe one of this latter group of schools is just the place for you. Although there may be some correlation between the school you attend and your starting pay or the opportunities that are available to you right after graduation, those correlations tend to break down as time progresses and you build a career and resumé of your own.
The reputation of an institution can be affected by factors that are completely nonrelated to what you will experience as a student. For example, schools that win big national athletic championships tend to be well known; many people assume that they are academically superior to other schools, even though there may be no connection at all between those two aspects of a university.
If you plan to study physics, you should probably look for a school that has some advanced physics equipment. If you want to study large-animal veterinary medicine, you should probably look for a school that has a farm where you can care for horses and cows. This may seem like common sense. But, as Voltaire pointed out, “Common sense is not so common.” We have seen many students who were disappointed by the actual facilities available for their chosen majors at various campuses.
There are two major aspects to athletics at the college level: participation and observation. Do you want a school where you can be an athlete or a fan? Are there scholarship dollars available for your sport? Is your sport a varsity sport or a club sport at the schools in which you are interested? Does your sport even exist at all of the colleges on your list? If you are interested in being a fan, the good news is that even the big powerhouse athletic departments are good about setting aside a fair number of tickets just for students.
Some schools, usually the larger ones, have a high proportion of classes that are taught by graduate students, usually called TAs (Teaching Assistants) or GAs (Graduate Assistants). Like most college professors, they probably have had little or no instruction on how to be a teacher. They are underpaid and often sleep deprived. Some of them have a tenuous grasp of the English language. But, there are also some gems. Some of these people are bound to be among the best teachers that you have ever had. However, some students and their families feel that it is worth going out of their way to be certain that they have access to professors and that the class sizes are manageable. Some classes at some colleges can have hundreds of students in a large, amphitheatre-like lecture hall, leaving little opportunity for meaningful interaction.
Some professors are famous. You may decide that it is worth going out of your way just to sit in a large crowd being lectured to by a particular person of note in his or her chosen field. Some students are, frankly, more comfortable in an environment where it is easy to blend in and they don’t have to worry about being called on to answer in class.
Many professors and instructors are focused on delivering quality education to their students, and some colleges go out of their way to arrange for frequent and high-quality interaction between students and instructors.
Everyone is aware that part of the college experience is social interaction. Some schools are single-sex and some are co-ed. Some dorms are segregated by sex also. The male–female ratio can vary from one school to the next. Some schools have reputations for being “party schools.” Some schools that are not known as “party schools” actually have some issues with things getting out of control from time to time.
Generally, smaller schools tend to be more socially homogeneous. Students tend to act, dress, and think more like one another. Larger schools tend to consist of a wider variety of perspectives and subcultures. Your comfort level with the social circumstances at your school can have an impact on your college success. Think about your personal social needs carefully when choosing a college.
To most people, diversity usually means racial diversity. However, there are other aspects to diversity, particularly when considering college: diversity of opinion, socioeconomic background, gender, majors, and countries of origin. All of these are factors on many college campuses. Some students feel that they will learn best in an environment where they are surrounded by people like themselves. Others are interested in experiencing more diversity and learning from people from different backgrounds.
The best way to get the true picture of most of these factors is to visit the campuses about which you are serious. You can do some preliminary research on the Internet, but you should remember that Web sites set up by the schools are essentially sales brochures. They have a significant financial interest in getting you to attend. You should be a wise consumer and take some of the sales pitches that you receive with a grain of salt. In fact, it is not a bad idea to try to meet some “real” students if you do a campus visit. Chances are that the school will match you up with a “campus guide,” who is a student with training in salesmanship. He or she will tell you about all of the wonderful aspects of life on campus. You probably won’t hear any complaints from your campus guide. It might be worth getting out on campus on your own for a while.
APPLYING TO COLLEGE
The general rule of thumb is that you should get all of your application materials into the colleges to which you are applying by the holiday break of your senior year. This means that you will have to have all of your personal statements finished, your applications filled out, your letters of recommendation and resumé sent in, and your test scores available to the admissions departments by New Year’s Day if you want to be ahead of most of the applicants, some of whom will often actually wait until near the final deadlines to turn in their applications.
Don’t “shotgun” your applications; be selective when choosing colleges. Many applications contain a question asking you to list all other colleges to which you are applying. The admissions office will review the answer to this question in order to gauge how realistic you are and whether you actually think that you have a shot at their school.
A good average number of schools to which to apply is about five. Choose one or two “backup” schools that you will attend only if something goes horribly wrong with your applications to your other choices. Two or three should be the schools that are realistic choices for you in terms of your GPA, ACT score, and other factors. One or two should be “reach” or “stretch” schools that might be long shots but where you have some chance at getting in and you will certainly attend if you are selected.
Applications are usually available as paper documents or as online forms on the schools’ Web sites. They vary in length (from two to ten pages, usually three or four pages) and in the type of information that they request. Fees and deadlines also vary. Don’t send in an application too early. Candid discussions with admissions professionals reveal that they appreciate promptness and neatness and don’t mind a reasonable amount of follow-up. What they do NOT like is sloppiness, an apparent inability to follow directions (sending a five-page personal statement when there is a two-page limit), aggressive and/or annoying follow-up, last-minute applications, or applications that come in before the department is ready for the year’s avalanche of incoming documents.
If you call an admissions department with a specific question or two, be focused. Write down your question ahead of time and keep your call polite, professional, and short. Do not expect anyone in the department to tell you that you can get in or definitely cannot get in. They have a procedure for making those decisions and they simply cannot make exceptions. You should listen for “code words” when you talk to admissions professionals. If they say, “we recommend … ” they mean, “Do it.” If they say, “we discourage … ” they mean, “Don’t do it.”
Many schools require you to write an essay or two. Some schools are very general in their requirements. They simply ask you to write an essay explaining why you would be a valuable addition to the school. Other institutions give very specific assignments. You should follow the directions and guidance that they give. Don’t write on a topic of your own choosing. Don’t go over the page limits given. Don’t turn in more essays than requested. Do make sure that the essays that you turn in are your own work. There is nothing wrong with asking a family member, teacher, or other professional for a little guidance and editing assistance. However, if you actually let someone else write your statements for you, it will be fairly simple for an experienced admissions professional to spot your fraud.
The best way to come up with a solid personal statement is to start early. Brainstorm a bit at the beginning of the process. List all of the topics and points that you want to include. Create a few different outlines. Get input from friends, family, teachers, and other professionals. Then do first drafts of the two or three best ideas. Put them aside for a week or two, then take them back out and read them again. We all have a tendency to fall in love with our own ideas and our own writing at first. If the idea still looks solid when you review it days later, it is probably worth finishing. Plan to go through several drafts and to get feedback from people who you trust along the way. The personal statement is usually your only chance to get the admissions committee to see you as a human being rather than just a set of numbers or a resumé.
The best personal statements are more than just mere resumé information. They are also more than just the all-too-common “kiss up” letter. You should definitely avoid the standard format of “You guys are soooo cool! [Here are some details that I looked up to prove it.] And, I’m cool too! [Here are some wonderful things about me.] Therefore, let me in!”
Instead, you should try to tell a story about yourself that illustrates a positive characteristic about which you want the admissions committee to know. A narrative format with a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion is far more effective than simply pasting in some information about the school that you probably learned from its Web site and that they probably already know. If the story illustrates something unique about you, or a hardship that you have overcome, that is fine. But make sure that you avoid the whiny tone that turns readers off. There is a big difference between explaining a legitimate reason for a temporary dip in your Grade Point Average and trying to gain admission through sympathy for your plight. The latter almost never works.
Letters of Recommendation
Most colleges have some famous alumni. They are not likely to be overly impressed if you get a recommendation letter from someone who is famous or powerful, unless that person actually knows you well and can honestly praise you effusively and in great detail. Be careful about the choice of people you ask to recommend you. Make sure that they are people who know you well and can speak about your academic strengths and/or strength of character. Give them plenty of time and don’t be afraid to follow up to be certain that your letters are ready or went out to the schools on time. Provide them with a pre-addressed, stamped envelope if the letter is to be sent via U.S. Mail. Offer to provide them with a copy of your resumé, or work that you did in their class, or a list of bullet points that you hope that they will include in your letter.
Be sensitive to “code words” in this situation also. If you hear, “I’m not sure that I’d be the best person for this,” or, “I’m not 100% comfortable … ” or, “Maybe you should ask someone who knows you better,” run, don’t walk, to find someone else to write your letter. If you persist, some folks are too polite to refuse outright but they may end up doing something that is fairly well known in the admissions game, called “damning with faint praise.” If a letter of recommendation is lukewarm in its descriptions of your abilities and positive attributes, the admissions committee reads it as saying, “I couldn’t get out of this gracefully but I can’t really recommend this candidate wholeheartedly.”
You may not have ever had a reason to put together a resumé before. Most colleges will either ask you for one or accept one if you include it with your application. There are many great sources of information regarding how to format your resumé. The best advice is to keep it simple and straightforward. Don’t play games with fonts, colors, and so on. Just lay out the information in an easy-to-read format so that the busy person who will be looking at it can quickly find what he or she needs. Don’t include information that might be construed as negative. For instance, if you volunteered for a political candidate, you might think twice about putting that information on your resumé for application purposes. The people reading your resumé might have political ideals that are directly opposed to “your” candidate’s ideals and they might let their feelings about politics start to influence their decisions about your application.
SUGGESTED HIGH SCHOOL COURSES
We are including a discussion of the courses that you should probably take to help with your ACT score and to help you get ready for college. Not surprisingly, most of the courses that help with ACT preparation also help with college preparation. Actual course names vary by high school so we are listing the course content that you should try to get in if there is still time.
Mathematics: Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Precalculus
Basic, intermediate, and some advanced algebra concepts will be tested on the ACT. There won’t be any geometry proofs, but there will be plenty of circles and triangles, and at least one diagram that will include two parallel lines crossed by a transversal. There won’t be any more than four trigonometry questions, so it is probably not worth taking a whole trigonometry course just to do better on the ACT. But, it will probably come in handy as preparation for college math. Similarly, precalculus will help with a very limited number of ACT math problems but is an important part of a College Prep curriculum.
English: Writing/Composition Courses
Reading and discussing literature can be an enlightening experience and is certainly part of a good education. However, the English courses that help most with the ACT are the ones that focus on writing skills. Creative Writing course instructors can sometimes be too easy on mechanics and clarity of expression. The more rigorous the course, the better it will prepare you for the ACT and for college-level work.
Science: Biology, Chemistry, Physics
The Science Test does not test your memory of the concepts that you learn in high school science courses. It does, however, assume that you have some background knowledge and a clear understanding of how scientific experiments and studies are conducted. If you have written up a few lab reports of your own, you will have a much easier time reading and understanding the information on the Science Test.
Languages: Latin, Spanish, Italian, French
Most English vocabulary comes from Latin. If you study Latin, or one of the modern versions of Latin that is spoken today, you’ll have a much easier time with English vocabulary. It is also true that many native English-speaking students learn much more about English grammar by studying a foreign language than those students who take only English courses.
If you have followed our advice and worked through all of the material in this book, you should give yourself a hearty “Well done!” and remember that you have put in plenty of effort to ensure your ACT success. Thanks for letting us help you get ready for the ACT. Good luck with your exam and with college!