Are Grades or Course Rigor More Important?

Sunlit colonade at Stanford University

When students choose their high school courses, lots of factors come into play. What are their academic goals? Do they have a strong enough grade in any prerequisite courses? What graduation requirements do they still need? Students who consider moving up to more challenging courses often ask me if grades or course rigor is more important. In other words, is it better to take harder classes like Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, or dual enrollment — even if they risk getting a lower grade? Or is it better to have a higher grade point average (GPA) by taking less challenging courses? Sometimes they have heard that AP or dual enrollment courses “don’t count” at many colleges or that colleges won’t consider a weighted GPA, which further confuses their attempts to pick classes.

There is a lot to unpack here, including how to be discerning about what you read and hear about college admissions. It is easy to hear one line of an admissions brief and miss the context in which it applies. Two students might have very different college application experiences that depend not only on their standing as applicants – grades, courses taken, test scores, class rank, and extracurricular activities ̶ but also on the characteristics of the college – small liberal arts college, flagship state school, highly competitive private university, or local commuter college. It’s essential to look closely at when a statement might be true and if that context applies to your situation.

Grades and Courses Both Matter

What are weighted grades? A grade point average (GPA) assigns a value to each course grade and calculates an average grade for the student over a semester, year, or full high school career. Some classes are considered harder than others, so a school might assign extra value to grades from those courses. The intention is that students still take demanding classes like calculus, fourth year Latin, or AP US History without worrying that their GPA will drop if they earned a lower grade. 

There isn’t a universal standard for weighting grades. Some school add one point for any high level course. Others have complex systems with different additions for honors, Advanced Placement, or college courses. The same grades in the same courses might produce different GPA depending on the system used by each high school. So, colleges look at GPA in the context of what is possible at a given school and also use information like class rank to evaluate student academic achievement.

What classes should a student take? Bottom line up front: a student should take classes that they are prepared for but that also challenge them to grow. Some students will prefer standard high school level (or college prep) courses. Other students seek out the greater academic challenge found in honors or college level courses. 

Rigorous Courses and Grades Aren’t All that Matters

What do colleges consider? Every year the National Association for College Admissions Counseling puts out a report on the State of College Admissions that includes a section on factors in admission. Grades and academic rigor consistently rank high as factors in college admissions. The majority of colleges list grades as of “Considerable Importance.” About half of colleges say that the strength of the curriculum at the high school and student test scores are also considerably important (though the importance of test scores is in flux). Course rigor and grades work together to create a picture of the student’s academic ability. The courses taken provide context for the grades; the courses available at the high school offer context for the courses on the transcript.

Many colleges also consider other factors, such as extracurricular activities, personal interest, and student background; but primarily they want to admit students who have the potential to do well in the classroom. The more selective a colleges is in admissions, the more likely they are to use additional factors to differentiate between students who have similarly high-level academic profiles. Because colleges may see transcripts using many grading systems, they may have their own system for comparing grades, but this does not mean they ignore the difficulty of the courses. These colleges aren’t just looking for the students with the most Advanced Placement courses. Some selective schools indicate that beyond a certain point there may be diminishing returns to simply taking more college-level courses, especially if that takes away time from other activities that make a student interesting.

Strong Grades in Rigorous Courses

What is the bottom line for students? Courses should be challenging enough to push the student to improve their knowledge without overwhelming them. Highly selective colleges tend to pick students with great grades and course rigor. Because they get so many applications, they can be very picky. On the other hand, students should ask if they are ready for a full load of the most rigorous courses and what they pay in opportunity cost. Maybe a course that relates to an intended major is a better option than an unrelated AP course. Advanced Choir might matter more than AP Spanish for a prospective music major. It’s also worth remembering that colleges that admit fewer than 25% of applicants only enroll around 3% of US undergraduates. Almost two-thirds of the incoming freshmen in college attend schools that admit over half of the students that apply.

Research a College Without a Visit

Street sign for College Ave

Many students can’t visit all the colleges they want to know more about. Cost, schedule conflicts, and covid campus closures might make the dream of a college tour road trip too hard to make a reality. On the other hand, its essential that students learn about a wide array of colleges. There are many great colleges across the US and most high school students only have a shallow basis for knowing about them. So how can you research a college without a college tour?

Databases for College Research

Some of the most important information about colleges is also the easiest to find, if you know where to look. Admissions statistics, graduation rates, annual costs, and even how many students complete each degree program is available in either the Integrated Post-Secondary Education Data System (IPEDS) data submitted to the Department of Education or the Common Data Set (which is usually available on individual college websites). These two data sets are the backbone of most college search engines.

College Navigator is one of the first places I go to research a college. This site uses IPEDS data and is an easy source of data on admissions rate, graduation rate, and how large specific degree programs are. The Net Price section is useful for private colleges, because it gives a sense of the actual Net Cost of Attendance at different family income levels. WARNING: For public colleges the Net Price info listed is only for students paying in state tuition. If you apply from out of state, you may pay a much higher tuition rate. College Scorecard takes the same IPEDS data and pairs it with information on post-graduation income and loan debt for specific fields of study. If you are unsure of your intended field of study, this may help visualize possible return on investment for different programs.

A college’s Common Data Set has two sections I find particularly helpful for college research. Section C includes information about admissions for first-time freshmen, including what factors are Very Important, Important, Considered, and Not Considered. For example, Washington State University has a 2020-21 CDS that lists GPA and Rigor of Secondary School Record as Very Important, but Standardized Test Scores, Interviews, and Level of Applicant’s Interest are Not Considered. This means Washington State University does not track if a student toured campus, attended online info sessions, or met with an admissions rep.

CDS Section C is also where you can find test score and GPA distributions for enrolled freshmen as well as some data on Early Decision and admissions waitlists. Because Common Data Set reports are stashed in different places on college websites, I usually search for [Name of College] Common Data Set and look for the most recent report.

Research the College on a Virtual Visit

Before 2020, some colleges had experimented with online “virtual tours.” These were usually photos of the main buildings on campus, with a recorded presentation by a peppy student. But for college research, they leave me a little cold. They often feel like an architectural tour, but it can be hard to feel like you know the school well and the tours tend to blur together.

As a result of Covid, most colleges created virtual information sessions and ways for prospective students to connect without coming to campus. Fortunately, many schools have kept these virtual options available. I try to look for virtual information sessions from admissions staff, live tours with a student guide where they respond to questions, one on one meetings with students or advisors, and virtual college presentations. Many college fairs have gone online, but I’ve heard a lot of college reps say that attendance is lower than normal. This means if you pop into a session during a college fair, you might be able to chat one on one with the admissions rep for your area.

Research the College Using Its Website

College websites are a goldmine for college research, if you have patience and a willingness to dig around. College websites can be a little confusing, since they usually serve many different interests and were built over many years. But as a general rule, you’ll find tabs for Admissions, Academics, and Student Life (or similar wording).

Admissions usually describes the process and timeline for applying to the college, with different pages for Undergraduate First Time Freshmen and Transfers as well as Graduate applicants. Links to financial aid and scholarship info might be in this section too.

Academics is where you’ll find descriptions of majors and minors, as well as college wide degree requirements. You should also look for links to individual colleges, schools, or departments that are smaller administrative organizations within the college or university. For example, Washington State University has 11 separate colleges, including the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, which in turn has 8 different schools and departments for different disciplines (including some at satellite campuses).

More on Researching College Majors

If you were looking for news about engineering wide support like the Living Learning Community or student clubs that would be in the College of Engineering pages. If you want to compare 4 year course plans for Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, that would be in the School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering section. These pages will give you a different perspective of life as an engineering student than if you were to just read the WSU catalog descriptions for Mechanical Engineering.

Obviously, students do more than just go to classes, and social life on campus can be a big factor in choosing where to attend. Tabs for Student Life or similar terms usually have information on housing, clubs, recreation, student dining, and support programs.

Be Creative in your College Research

This is related to the suggestion to dig into the pages for specific programs and departments. Look for videos or podcasts that feature departments, majors, and clubs you care about. Sometimes you’ll get a different sense of what programs or the school than what the admissions marketing department produces. This video explains a research project by Washington State University engineering students that explores how to remove space dust from areas like air locks (don’t miss the astronaut doll in kevlar “space suit” as a test object). And sometimes you’ll find videos with behind the scenes views of campus. For example, I found this video showcasing the Washington State University Engineering Shops. Note that neither of these videos were from the main Washington State University YouTube channel.

Good Outside Sources for College Research

College guide books have been around for a long time now. Think of these as the movie review of the college world. They usually give the highlights of what a college is known for, written either by a campus research team or individual students. A few I like include the Fiske Guide to Colleges (updated annually), Insider’s Guide to Colleges (each entry is written by 1-2 students at the school), and Colleges That Change Lives (in depth descriptions, but could use a refresh now).

There are now a lot of outside review sites that try to crowdsource information about colleges. Because these are often written by anonymous students, you don’t really know what their experience or motivation is. Read these with an eye towards trends that are mentioned by many reviews, so you don’t get sucked into one person’s drama. A couple that may be worth your time include Unigo and Campus Reel.

How Can Homeschoolers Apply to College?

“Can homeschoolers apply to college?” I homeschooled for almost two decades. Often when someone found out we homeschooled, they had questions about higher level academics like calculus and advanced Latin. Sometimes they asked how our kids could apply to college There were also questions about social activities like prom, but since I had two not great prom experiences, this seemed a less compelling concern. Some people went so far as to assume that homeschoolers can’t go to college. Others knew of homeschoolers who attended high profile colleges. They wondered if homeschooling could be a college admissions hook.

The reality is somewhere between these two extremes. Homeschoolers can go to college (and often do). Homeschooling often supports deep educational explorations that are highly attractive to selective colleges. But homeschooling itself is not a silver bullet in college admissions. Colleges are willing to consider homeschool applications, but still need enough information to make an admissions decision. While public and private school students get transcripts from their high school, homeschool families usually need to create the documentation that supports their student’s applications.

This article will give an overview of college admissions for homeschoolers. I’m drawing on my experience with my own three sons as well as homeschooled students I’ve worked with. I’ve also had many conversations with college admissions representatives as a co-chair of the Homeschool Affinity Group of the Independent Educational Consultants Association.

What Do Colleges Consider When They Review Applications?

There is no checklist that will guarantee admission to a student’s first choice college.

Factors considered in admissions vary from school to school, because different colleges have different institutional priorities. A public flagship may prioritize educating students from that state. One private college may do a deep holistic review of applications, while another looks mainly at grades and test scores. But we can talk in general about what colleges consider.

For decades, the most important factors have related to academic performance in high school. They usually look at grades in the context of the courses taken, along with standardized test scores. This means that the rigor of the course load matters as well as the grades earned. Colleges may also look for demonstrated ability in courses related to an intended major.

A potential engineer should start college ready to take calculus, chemistry, and physics, which is often demonstrated by having taken those courses in high school. A political science major would want to have a strong record in history, government, and economics and would benefit by demonstrating strong writing and foreign language ability. Students are sometimes surprised by the need for advanced math. Both computer science and business programs often require calculus for college freshmen and prefer students who are ready for this level of math.

Colleges don’t simply rank applicants by GPA and test score, then admit them in rank order. A second set of factors goes beyond academic readiness to consider other qualities the student possesses. A college might require essays, letters of recommendations, extracurricular activities (including family responsibilities and work), portfolios and interviews to learn more about the student’s personality, interests, and life experience. They might use class rank to provide more context to the GPA.  Dance and music majors, film production majors, and arts students may need to submit sample work or do auditions. Students interested in nursing may need volunteer experience in health care settings. Some colleges track the student’s demonstrated interest in the college. Most colleges also consider financial need as part of their admissions review process.

What Should Homeschoolers Include in College Applications?

The biggest difference for homeschoolers is that they have to provide documentation that would otherwise come from a high school. At a minimum a homeschooler needs a high school transcript that lists all courses taken with a course grade and the year they took the course.  Many colleges specifically ask for course descriptions that offer more detail about course content, textbooks used, and assessment method. 

The parent may also want to submit the counselor recommendation and a school profile. A school profile helps to explain the how and why of homeschooling, offers information on grading policies (grading scale, how outside courses were assigned credit), and briefly describes any educational partners like online curriculum providers. Think of this as a document that explains the student’s educational setting. On the other hand, a counselor recommendation describes the student’s strengths and personal traits. This recommendation describes who the student is and why they would be a great addition to the college community. Some families worry that college will immediately discount a counselor recommendation written by a family member. Most college admissions reps I’ve asked say they appreciate the context the counselor letter gives, even when written by a homeschool parent.

Many colleges ask for letters of recommendation from teachers and other individuals, and these should come from someone who is not a family member. If possible, teacher recommendations should comment on academic preparation and ability to work as part of a group of students. Sources of recommendations include coop teachers, tutors, academic team coaches (robotics, Science Olympiad, Model UN), or dual enrollment instructors. Some online course instructors will happily write letters of recommendation. If the student had no outside academic coursework, look for other adults who know the student well, like coaches, employers, clergy, or mentors. Usually, a college application specifies what type of recommendations a college accepts, but it’s worth contacting admissions to ask if you have questions. Sometimes they will accept additional letters for homeschoolers, but may ask to have them sent directly to the admissions office if they are outside the categories the application requires.

Can Homeschoolers Apply Test Optional?

Test scores tend to carry additional weight for homeschool applications, because it’s data that colleges find easy to understand. Homeschool students don’t have a class rank that compares them to hundreds of fellow students. Some colleges hesitate over homeschool grades and don’t have time to read applications holistically. Scores from the SAT or ACT can reassure a college that a student is ready for college work.

Test optional admissions are when a college considers an application complete without SAT or ACT test scores, but will consider scores if they are submitted. Some colleges have been test optional for many years, but the coronavirus pandemic forced most US colleges to allow test optional applications in 2020 and 2021. Some cheerfully extended this option to homeschoolers, but other colleges continued to require homeschoolers to submit scores. You may also see different policies around test score requirements for college scholarships.

Outside tests in specific content areas can also fill this role. National Latin Exam, AMC math tests, or Advanced Placement exams are a few examples of content specific tests. Performance in academic extracurriculars like Science Olympiad, Model United Nations, Poetry Out Loud, or History Day competitions might serve a similar role. Some colleges used to require the SAT Subject Tests for homeschoolers, but College Board eliminated those tests in 2021. If you see Subject Tests listed as an admissions requirement, reach out to that college for clarification.

What Additional Requirements Do Colleges Have for Homeschoolers?

Some colleges ask for specific additional material from homeschoolers. A few examples:

  • Arizona State University requires an evaluation form describing a complete lab for each lab science course on the transcript.  
  • Bard College requires a “full syllabus” for any course from a non-accredited school and also an analytic paper written by the student.
  • University of Alabama in Huntsville requires homeschoolers to fill out a Homeschool Transcript Template (which counts as one of the more frustrating documents I’ve tried to complete).

Some college websites refer to homeschool agencies, umbrella organizations, or private school satellites. This may reflect state law or common practice where the college is located. If the requirements don’t reflect what is required in your state, contact the admissions office directly. Some will accept other documentation while others are not at all flexible.

These requirements might be clearly stated on the admissions website, show up in the fine print on an application, or be buried in the college catalog. The best practice for students and homeschool parents is to search for homeschool requirements at each college they are considering. I recommend doing this in the early days of list formation. If a college insists on requirements that you can’t meet, such as an official final transcript from a local public school or extensive college coursework as a high school student, it’s best to know that when you have time to apply elsewhere.

Homeschoolers Do Go to College

Every year homeschoolers are accepted to colleges and universities around the US. In most cases the days of having to convince admissions that homeschooling is a valid and legal educational choice are well behind us. In addition, homeschoolers are usually eligible for need-based grants and merit-based scholarships from colleges as well as many outside scholarship competitions.

That said, colleges that are highly selective – those that receive far more applications than they can admit will be looking for evidence of academic readiness as well as indications that a student is one that will be an engaged member of the campus community.

Homeschooling itself is not a stumbling block to college admissions, but it is also not a silver bullet. Homeschool students still need to meet admissions requirements. They should be ready to provide information that the college can use to make an admissions decision. And like all students, they should build a college list that includes schools with medium and high chances of admission, not just colleges with low admissions rates.

How to Write a “Why Us” College Essay

What Is a Why Us Essay

Many colleges require answers to essay prompts beyond the long personal statement. These might range from asking about a historical event you could have witnessed (Stanford) to your favorite book (University of Southern California). One type of supplemental essays that frequently stumps students are the Why Us college essay. These challenges students not just to describe themselves or list features they like about the college, but to connect their interests with the characteristics of the college to demonstrate why student and school are a good match.

A Why Us college essay prompt might look something like these:

Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (Approximately 250 words) University of Southern California

Please describe why you are interested in attending Tulane University. (max 800 words)

Why do you want to study your chosen major specifically at Georgia Tech? (max 300 words)

How will opportunities at Purdue support your interests, both in and out of the classroom? (max 100 words)

Why Bard? (max 250 words)

Why Do Colleges Have Why Us Essays

Before you sit down to write your response, consider how a college would use this prompt – what information do they hope to get out of it? Remember that any essay a college requires is one that they have to spend time reading. Georgia Tech is explicit about why they use this prompt (and their explanation would apply to many other colleges).

The traits of a strong essay include ones that:

  • Demonstrate authenticity & self-awareness
  • Demonstrate thoughtfulness
  • Display attention to topic, style, and grammar
  • Demonstrate a student has thought about why Georgia Tech, specifically, is a fit for them and how their goals align with Georgia Tech’s mission statement: The Georgia Institute of Technology is a public research university established by the state of Georgia in Atlanta in 1885 and committed to developing leaders who advance technology and improve the human condition.

One reason colleges often include this type of prompt is they want to admit students who will actually enroll. This is something they keep close track of and try to predict accurately, especially as numbers of applications increase. Yield is the ratio of students who attend to students who are accepted. So a yield of 20% would mean than 20% of the students admitted to a college chose to enroll as students. When colleges do a poor job of predicting yield, they either have a class that is smaller than desired (with lower tuition revenues) or a class that is larger than expected (causing shortages in housing and seats in classes). Asking students to directly express why they think a college is a good fit helps to distinguish between students who are likely to arrive in fall. Students who apply based on a rankings list, because their friends are applying, or because a parent said they should will often struggle to write a Why Us essay.

What to Include in a Why Us College Essay

Try to draw strong connections between your interests and the opportunities at the college. When you read about academic programs, extracurricular activities or unique opportunities at the college, which make you think, “Hey, if I were there I could…”  Which opportunities light you up and what ideas do they spark?

Make a list of 10-15 reasons you would like to attend the college. 

  • What are you looking forward to as a prospective student?
  • What aspects of your future academic department intrigue you?
  • Are there any particular classes you hope to take? Why those courses?
  • What clubs or teams interest you?
  • Are there particular outreach or networking programs that have caught your eye?
  • If you could choose between several colleges, why would you choose this school over other colleges?

Now connect your interests to these unique college features.  These responses might follow a pattern like:

Because I’m interested in (aspect of prospective major), I’m excited by (program, way of teaching, club, opportunity), because it would (possible outcome).

Or you can flip it around:

Because I want to (achieve goal or outcome), the (program, club, opportunity, way of teaching) attracts me, since it would let me (combine parts of your identity, have access to something special, be supported in a significant way). 

The depth of your explanation will depend on the word limit for the response. An 650-word response is going to need a thoughtful response with vivid detail, while a 100-word response will only allow you to explore a few ideas.

This response shouldn’t read like a laundry list of facts about the college. Instead it should connect what interests you with what the college offers, with a “so what” type explanation. If you want to study computer science but can’t decide between artificial intelligence and the internet of things AND Georgia Tech has a Threads curriculum that lets you study both, THEN what do you hope to get out of that experience. If a college is well-known for its interdisciplinary programs, coop requirement, or individualized major; why does that make you sit up and take notice.

Other Tips for Writing Why Us College Essays

If you are still struggling to write a Why Us college essay, go back to the reasons you put the school on your college list in the first place. If you come up short on reasons why this school is a good match, it may be a sign that you need to do more research. Sign up for a virtual presentation from the admissions office, explore the options for potential academic majors, read social media news streams from not only the main official account but also departments and clubs, and browse recent articles in the campus paper.  Expect to spend several hours doing this type of research.

General tips for writing essays:
Write in a word processing program where you can easily edit, check word count, and spell check. When you are happy, paste your response into the application.
Use examples that are specific and reveal who you are. Don’t use general comments that might apply to any college — or any student.
Don’t wait until the last minute. Give yourself time to research and think about how you would find your place at that college.

Service Academy Summer Programs

For most high school students, exposure to the military is limited to books and movies.  Even those from military families may wonder what it would be like to personally have the restrictions and responsibility of military life.  Service academy summer programs offer high school students a chance to experience what life as a cadet or midshipman is like. This can help students know if they really want to apply to attend an academy.

These programs are relatively small and cannot accept all of the students who apply, so take the time to submit a quality application. You don’t need to apply the first morning the application is open, but don’t procrastinate either. The applications may require essays, transcripts, and recommendations that you can’t produce at the last minute.

What Are Service Academies?

You might have heard of the Army-Navy Football Game, one of the longest running rivalries in college football. But you might not really understand that service academies are both military training centers and colleges.

There are five federal service academies: US Naval Academy (Navy & Marine Corps), US Military Academy (Army), US Air Force Academy (Air Force & Space Force), US Coast Guard Academy, and US Merchant Marine Academy (civilian maritime professions or a military commission). Each is a college, run by the federal government, that offers an undergraduate education and immersive military training for future officers. 

Students (called cadets or midshipmen) attend college classes, gain leadership experience, and go on summer military training.  At the end of four years, they earn a Bachelor of Science degree and become officers in the branch of the military associated with their academy. Students receive a 100% scholarship that covers tuition, room & board, and a monthly stipend. In return for the tuition-free education, graduates serve for several years in the military. As a result, applications are competitive and should be started in spring of junior year.

Students who are interested in applying to a service academy should also consider college ROTC programs. College ROTC programs are another pathway to becoming a military officer. ROTC scholarships can pay for tuition, fees, books, and a monthly stipend.

Benefits of Attending a Service Academy Summer Program

Students get a better sense of what attending an academy is like

Service academy summer programs are packed with presentations from academy leaders, demonstrations of military gear, and tours academic facilities. But it’s not all passive watching. There is hands on training too: obstacle courses, basic squad tactics, damage control exercises, and more.

Summer programs are led by current cadets & midshipmen

This gives participants a chance to talk to someone currently going through the academy. Their descriptions of academy life up to date and often less filtered. They may explain why they chose their academy over other opportunities or the good and bad side of being there. There are other opportunities to meet cadets and midshipmen, like admissions information events, but service academy summer programs offer several days of interaction, not just the chance to ask one or two questions.

Students learn if they’re physically ready for an academy

Service academy summer programs often start with morning fitness training, and include other physical activities throughout the day. Just getting from one side of campus to another may involve a fair amount of marching or jogging. In addition, academies usually do a full administration of their fitness test for all participants. If your score is strong, you might not need to take the fitness assessment again. If it’s not so great, you can use this as a practice test and go home knowing what you need to work on.

Service Academy Summer High School Programs

The following Service academy summer programs are one-week orientations for rising seniors, usually held before the incoming freshman class arrives.  Training is primarily led by current midshipmen and cadets, along with recent graduates.  The cost includes room and board, but students are responsible for their own travel arrangements.  I’ve put these in rough order by when the applications open and close. Because of the high number of applications, late applications are not usually considered.

Note: Military service members must be vaccinated for Covid-19. Students may be required to provide proof of vaccination in order to participate in summer programs on campus.

US Air Force Academy

The US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, CO trains officers for the Air Force and now the Space Force. Its Summer Seminar gives seniors an opportunity to experience life as a cadet. Seminar dates are typically mid-June.  Students can submit the Air Force Academy Summer Seminar application December 1– January 15.  The program costs approximately $300.

Session 1: 6-9 June (Virtual)
Session 2: 13-17 June (In Person)

US Naval Academy

The US Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD prepares future Navy and Marine Corps officers. It hosts the Naval Academy Summer Seminar or NASS. This is an introduction to “academic, athletic, and professional training.” 

There are three sessions in June. 
Session 1: June 4 – June 9, 2022
Session 2: June 11 – June 16, 2022
Session 3: June 18 – June 23, 2022

The Naval Academy Summer Seminar application opens January 4, 2022 and closes on March 31, 2022.  Cost is $650.

Note: The Naval Academy currently requires proof of Covid-19 vaccination for overnight stays on campus. Students should expect to submit proof of vaccination to attend summer programs at the Naval Academy.

US Military Academy

The US Military Academy in West Point, NY holds a Summer Leadership Experience or SLE. This offers an immersion in cadet life for rising seniors.  Classes, physical and military training are held in the first two weeks of June.  Rolling admission application open January 15, 2022 – March 15, 2022.  Cost approx $460.

Session 1: May 28 – June 3, 2022
Session 2: June 4 – June 10, 2022

US Coast Guard Academy

The US Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT holds the latest of the academy summer programs. The Academy Introduction Mission (AIM) runs in July. This summer program has a reputation for its realistic exposure to life at a service academy.  For 2022, the Coast Guard Academy will hold a total of four AIM session, three on campus and one virtual session. The application for summer 2022 is open February 8 – April 15, 2022.  Cost is approx $750. Some need based scholarships are available. 

Session I: 3-8 July 2022, On Campus
Session II: 10-15 July 2022, On Campus
Session III: 17-22 July 2022, On Campus
Session IV: 27-28 July 2022, Virtual (no charge)

US Merchant Marine Academy

The US Merchant Marine Academy in King’s Point, NY does not hold a summer camp for high school students. Contact USMMA directly for information about touring King’s Point.

How to Apply to Service Academy Summer Programs

Applications typically ask for PSAT, SAT, or ACT test scores, but this requirement may be waived for students who live in areas where testing has not been offered. Students are usually also asked for grades in key academic courses, an activities list, and an essay.  Programs may have physical requirements that are similar to military medical qualification standards. Some applications require a letter of recommendation. 

Capacity in these Service academy summer programs is limited, so they may prioritize students who live far from the school or in under-represented geographic areas. Students should submit a well-prepared application early in the application window. Because the programs are small, students should not assume a turn-down letter means a lower chance of an appointment to that academy. If you are interested in attending an academy, you should lean in to complete your application early in the fall of senior year.

Other Military Summer Programs

In addition to the academy camps for rising seniors there are other opportunities to get exposure to a service academy or the military.  Some are open to students in earlier grades.

Naval Academy STEM Camps – One-week STEM intensive camps for rising 9th-11th grade students in June.  This camp focuses more on STEM experiences than military orientation.  Each week is restricted to a particular grade level.  Application opens January 4, 2022 and closes March 31, 2022. Cost $900 (includes food and lodging at the Naval Academy). 

2022 Session Dates:
Rising 9th Graders: June 6-11, 2022
Rising 10th Graders: June 13-18, 2022
Rising 11th Graders: June 20-24, 2022
Note: Sessions vary by grade level. Students may only attend the session designed for their grade.

West Point STEM Camps – Week-long, hands on STEM camps for middle school (rising 7-8th grade) and high school (rising 9-10th grade) students. Classes are taught be West Point faculty and cadets. All participants must show proof of full Covid-19 vaccination. Application closes March 18, 2022. Cost: Tuition, food, and housing costs are paid for through a donation to the Center for Diversity and Leadership in STEM. Participants must pay for transportation to and from West Point or Newark Airport.

2022 Session Dates
Middle School: June 14-17, 2022 https://www.westpoint.edu/centers-and-research/center-for-leadership-and-diversity-in-stem/middle-and-high-school-stem-workshop
High School: June 21-24, 2022

Society of American Military Engineers (SAME) conducts STEM Summer Camps at military bases around the country.  These camps focus on military construction and engineering, and are open to rising 10th-12th grade students.  Application opens in early December.  Cost $100-600 depending on camp, but sponsorships may be available for some camps.

Year Round Military High School Programs

Students interested deeper exposure to the military might consider a year-round program. 

Many high schools have Junior ROTC units associated with a branch of the military.  Students in these units usually have a JROTC class as part of their school schedule, as well as associated after school and weekend training.  Activities may include fitness and obstacle course training, flight familiarization, marksmanship, cyber security competitions, and ceremonial events. Students in some JROTC units may also be eligible for an academy nomination through their JROTC unit.

Sea Cadets – Run by the Navy League of the United States and supported by the Navy and Coast Guard, Sea Cadet units have regular meetings through the year, as well as a two-week summer training camp and additional advanced training opportunities focused on seamanship and seagoing topics.

Civil Air Patrol – Part of the Air Force Auxiliary, CAP Cadet squadrons typically meet weekly with a longer event once a month on a weekend and a one-week summer encampment. 

Sea Scouts, Civil Air Patrol, and Junior ROTC do not require students to join the military.  They do offer opportunities for doing hard things and being active in small group leadership experiences.  8-15% of incoming service academy freshmen participated in one of these organizations.

Service Academy Applications Help

The military is a great choice for many students.  Paths to an officer commission include not only attending a service academy, but also enrolling in a college Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) unit with a scholarship or as a college program student. 

When I applied to the Naval Academy, the application was a packet of paper forms with space for hand-written essays and bubbled in activity listings. The format has changed over the years, but the need for organization and timeliness remains. Applying to any military academy or ROTC scholarship requires organization and attention to detail and deadlines. If you’d like guidance with this process, please schedule an inquiry meeting.

Related: Learn about US Service Academy Nominations

Learn About FAFSA

Learn about FAFSA and how it can help pay for college

The new Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA opens each year October 1. What does that mean for high school seniors and their parents? Read on to learn about FAFSA, why it matters, and where to get help completing the FAFSA.

What Is the FAFSA?

FAFSA is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. It is a form that collects information on student status and their family financial situation in order to determine eligibility for federal student aid, including Pell Grants, federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans, and federally supported work study programs. In addition, most colleges rely on the FAFSA as a basis for awarding need-based grants from the college.

FAFSA an instrument of the US Department of Education, and the official Federal Student Aid website is robust and worth your time. It includes sections on how financial aid works, types of aid, and how federal aid is calculated. The section on completing the FAFSA form has lots of information on required documents, factors that determine dependency status, and providing financial information. Rather than quoting each of these sections here, I encourage you to go directly to the Federal Student Aid website. Not only is the information there up to date and official, but you are likely to find explanations you didn’t even realize you should be asking about.

That said, I will address a few frequently asked questions that I get each year.

Who Needs to Complete a FAFSA?

The student submits the FAFSA, but in most cases will require information about parent income and assets. The best practice is for the student to start the process by creating a FAFSA ID and then invite a parent to create a supporting account. Any student who is interested in using federal student loans, or who seeks need-based aid from colleges should submit a FAFSA. In addition, many state grant programs require students to submit the FAFSA to establish eligibility.

Some colleges require submission of a FAFSA for specific scholarships from the college. For example, the Virginia Tech Emerging Leader Scholarship for members of the Corps of Cadets requires annual completion of the FAFSA. You should read the financial aid pages for each college you apply to in order to learn about FAFSA requirements and deadlines.

Does Submitting the FAFSA Hurt My Chance of Admission?

Let me turn this question around. Does it help you to gain admission to a college you can’t afford to attend?

A student might choose not to submit a FAFSA if: they can pay the entire cost of attendance for all four years, and they are confident that their financial situation will not change. Colleges are not generous when they suspect families of playing games by claiming no financial need when applying but then trying to negotiate a tuition. Some colleges will not award additional financial aid until the following year, if the student did not initially submit a FAFSA, even if the family’s financial situation changed.

If you aren’t sure how much each of your colleges is likely to cost, you want to use their Net Price Calculator and other resources to estimate annual cost of attendance and the total cost of a degree.

Only a handful of colleges are need blind for admissions. Many colleges consider how much financial aid each student would “cost” their financial aid budget when they build their incoming class. Students who know that they want to be considered for need-based aid not only should submit the FAFSA and do so in a timely way (I suggest by the end of October), but also need to ensure that their college list includes schools that are good financial fits for their family budget.

Related: What Will College Cost?

When Do I Have to Submit the FAFSA?

You don’t have to submit on October 1, but be aware of deadlines at individual colleges. Schools often have a fall deadline for priority financial consideration that would require not only financial aid paperwork, but also a completed college application. I recommend that families try to submit the FAFSA before the end of October. (Note that you will also see dates that are state deadlines for submitting the FAFSA. This represents the last date to submit FAFSA for that school year in order to be eligible for state grants, but may be long past when colleges have allotted their need-based financial aid for the year.)

Note: If you know that you will not be eligible for need-based aid, but want to use federal student loans, you have the option of waiting to submit the FAFSA after colleges give admissions decisions and letting the college financial aid office know that you are only submitting for the purpose of federal loan eligibility. (But do read the previous section on who should submit a FAFSA.)

What Information Do I Need to Complete the FAFSA?

Questions will ask about current assets and income from the “prior-prior” year. A student applying for aid for the Fall 2022 semester would use income information from the 2020 tax year. More information on required documents and instructions are available on the Federal Student Aid website.

Where Can I Get Help on the FAFSA?

In addition to the Help section on the Federal Student Aid website, there are blue question marks within the FAFSA itself that open up help boxes for specific topics. Federal Student Aid even has a YouTube channel.  Each year there are institutions that create line-by-line walk through videos. I suggest you stick with videos from state education organizations or non-profit colleges. Remember that FAFSA is the FREE Application for Federal Student Aid. You should not pay anyone to submit this for you.

Is FAFSA the Only Form I Need for Financial Aid?

About 300 colleges, universities, and scholarships use an additional financial aid form called the CSS Profile. This asks more detailed questions about family assets to determine what a family’s financial resources are.  The calculated Expected Family Contribution (EFC) for the FAFSA and CSS Profile are often different because they use different formulas.  The CSS Profile is now free for families that make up to $100,000. For other students it is $25 for the first submission and $16 per additional report. But remember students only need to complete the CSS Profile if they apply to a college or scholarship that require it.

Um, How Do You Say FAFSA?

Great question. Say it like one word, FAF-sah.

What Are ROTC Scholarships?

Ohio State University ROTC building entrance with signs for Military Science, Air Science, & Naval Science

The Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC, often pronounced ROT-see) is a program to educate and train future US military officers at civilian colleges and universities. Students are simultaneously full-time college students and ROTC cadets or midshipmen. They take courses in military, air, or naval science alongside their other college classes. They also have regular military training during the school year and over the summer to prepare them for their role as future military officers. ROTC scholarships pay for tuition and more at many colleges around the US.

Three ROTC Programs, Five Military Branches

There are three different ROTC programs. Army ROTC trains future Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard officers. Navy ROTC trains future Navy and Marine Corps officers, and has a special track for Navy Nursing. Air Force ROTC trains future Air Force officers and now offers some cadets the option of commissioning into the Space Force.

Host Units and Cross Town Agreements

Students can only participate in ROTC at colleges that host a ROTC unit for that program, or that are a cross town affiliate with the unit at another college. For example, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Navy ROTC unit includes cross town students from Harvard and Tufts. Meanwhile, Air Force ROTC Det 60 at University of Southern California includes students from USC as well as students from two dozen nearby colleges including Embry-Riddle, Occidental, Cal State Polytechnic Pomona, and Chapman.

Make sure that there is a ROTC unit or cross-town agreement for the specific program you want to join. Students at Occidental for example could affiliate with the Army ROTC unit at UCLA or the Air Force ROTC unit at USC, but would not have a Navy ROTC option available.

It’s also important to remember that the high school scholarship applications are just that, an application for a ROTC program scholarship. Students still need to apply to – and be admitted to colleges where they’d like to use the scholarship.

ROTC Scholarships

ROTC Scholarships for High School Students

Each ROTC program has a scholarship competition for high school students. The application typically opens in spring of junior year, with scholarship review boards over the fall and winter. Because students might not hear the results of their scholarship application until spring of senior year, it’s essential to complete college applications without waiting for ROTC scholarship results.

The application typically requires an academic record, SAT/ACT test scores, teacher recommendations, activities list, essay responses, an interview, and a fitness assessment. Students must also go through a medical review board that determines medical qualification. Students are evaluated on their academic ability and potential as future military leaders.

Participation in high school Junior ROTC is not required, but is one of many ways a student might develop leadership skills. Other common venues of growing as a leader include team sports, scouts, Civil Air Patrol, Sea Cadets, student government, academic teams and clubs, and work.

ROTC Scholarships for College Students

College students can join a ROTC unit whether or not they have been awarded a 4-year scholarship. They would take the same ROTC courses and do the same school year training events, but usually don’t do summer training. Non-scholarship students may be considered for 3- or 2-year scholarships or a contract that results in a commission after graduation. Usually, success in earning a scholarship as a college student depends on college grades and performance as a ROTC cadet or midshipman.

ROTC Scholarship Benefits

ROTC scholarships pay for part or all of college tuition and required fees, depending on the program and scholarship category. Scholarships usually also include a book allowance, uniforms, and a monthly tax-free stipend.

Basic Eligibility

  • Be a US citizen
  • Be within age requirements
  • Have a high school diploma or equivalent
  • Meet fitness standards
  • Meet physical (medical) standards
  • Agree to accept a commission and serve in the respective branch of the military after graduation

How to Apply for ROTC Scholarships

The specific eligibility, application, and service requirements vary according to which ROTC program the student joins and what career path they are assigned after graduation. See each Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program page for current information.

Navy ROTC (Navy and Marine Corps)

Air Force ROTC (Air Force and Space Force)

Army ROTC (Army, Army Reserve, and Army National Guard)

Ohio State University Buckeye statute in a green flight suit.
Ohio State University Buckeye Statue

Should You Take the SAT or the ACT?

scientific calculator

Is it better to take the SAT or the ACT? Do some colleges prefer one test over the other? The ACT and SAT are two tests used by colleges to help determine if a student is ready for college level academics. They might also play a role in awarding financial aid that is based on academics rather than financial need. Many students ask if they need to take both tests to have their best chance in college admissions. To answer that, you need to know a little history, a little bit about how colleges use test scores, and a lot about your ability to get a strong test score.

SAT vs ACT

Historically the ACT was more popular in the Midwest, while the SAT was more common on the coasts. This has changed over the years and both tests are scheduled nationwide for weekend test dates. Students can register for either the SAT or the ACT using each tests online registration. (See the tables below for ACT and SAT test dates and registration deadlines.)

However, many high schools also administer either the ACT or the SAT during a school day. They use the test results to gather data on student achievement and school effectiveness. The test day administrations also give broader access to students who might not sign up for one of the tests on their own. But because each district or state chooses either the SAT or the ACT for school day testing, students might be less familiar with the other tests. This can lead them to wonder if they will have a disadvantage with colleges that might prefer one test over the other.

Decades ago, the SAT and ACT differed in how they measured college readiness. In the past 20 years, revisions to test format resulted in more similarities than differences. Both the ACT and SAT have timed sections that focus on specific academic areas. The ACT tests English skills like grammar and punctuation, Math, Reading, and Science. The SAT has sections for Reading, Writing and Language, and Math. The SAT does not have a specific Science section, but does include science related questions. They use these science related questions to generate a cross test Science score.

ACT Test Dates and Registration Deadlines

ACT Test DateACT Registration DeadlineLate Registration Deadline
September 11, 2021August 6, 2021August 20, 2021
October 23, 2021September 17, 2021October 1, 2021
December 11, 2021November 5, 2021November 19, 2021
February 12, 2022January 7, 2022January 21, 2022
April 2, 2022February 25, 2022March 11, 2022
June 11, 2022May 6, 2022May 20, 2022
July 16, 2022June 17, 2022June 24, 2022
*No test centers are scheduled in New York for the July ACT test date.

Register for the ACT on the ACT website.

SAT Test Dates and Registration Deadlines

SAT Test DateSAT Registration DeadlineLate Registration Deadline
August 28, 2021July 30, 2021August 17, 2021
October 2, 2021September 3, 2021September 21, 2021
November 6, 2021October 8, 2021October 26, 2021
December 4, 2021November 4, 2021November 23, 2021
March 12, 2022February 11, 2022March 1, 2022
May 7, 2022April 8, 2022April 26, 2022
June 4, 2022May 5, 2022May 25, 2022

Register for the SAT at the College Board website.

Do Colleges Care Which Test Students Take?

The good news for students is that colleges will usually accept either test on an equal basis. Admissions officers understand that access to tests given in high schools varies. They use score concordance tables to compare ACT scores to SAT scores. They can also draw on years of experience to know what type of test score indicates readiness for success at their college. This means that students don’t have to decide if the SAT or ACT is better for a particular college, but if there is one test that is a better choice for them.

Complicating the question if a student should take the SAT or the ACT is a general lack of test availability due to Covid-19 restrictions. In some areas, tests have not been available for many months. The lack of test access in 2020 resulted in many colleges adopting test optional admissions policies. Some like University of California even chose to use test blind admissions, in which test scores are not considered during admissions review.

How Should Students Approach Testing?

Take a practice ACT and practice SAT test to see how you might do and if one test feels more comfortable. Try to take the practice all at one sitting to be as close as possible to an actual test day.

If your practice tests score near the range for admitted students at schools you are interested in, try to register for a test. Keep in mind that registration deadlines are about a month before the test. Also, it takes several weeks for scores to arrive, so tests taken after October of senior year might not be considered in early college applications.

If your scores don’t represent your academic performance in school, look into test optional or test blind admissions. FairTest keeps a list of colleges with test optional and test blind policies.

If tests are not available in your area, move on. Devote the time you might have spend on test practice to meaningful engagement in your activities.

In other words, it’s not just a question of if you should take the SAT or the ACT, but if test scores represent your abilities and what you would miss out on doing while concentrating on test practice.

How Many US Students Are Homeschooled?

girl in yellow jacket sitting beside man in blue long sleeves

Earlier this week, Gallup released their annual education satisfaction survey results, which includes a breakdown of where US K-12 students go to school. I’ve been watching for this survey, because it had interesting results in 2020 regarding where students in the US are educated. I have been waiting for this survey to post, because it includes a question about how many students are homeschooled.

2020 Jump in Homeschooling

Last year, this survey reported that 10% of US students were starting the 2020 school year as homeschool students, defined in the survey as “not enrolled in a formal school but taught at home.” This was over double the 4% figure from the 2019 survey.

This year, the numbers look similar to those from two years ago, with 4% again responding that their students are homeschooled and the percentage of families reporting public and private school enrollment looking very similar to 2019. It’s possible that the 2020 numbers represented an unusual moment in time.

I think the phrasing of the question is relatively clear, but it’s hard to know how someone on the phone received it: “Will your oldest child attend public, private, parochial, charter school – either in-person or remotely — or will they home school this year? By home school we mean not enrolled in a formal school, but taught at home.”

I know many families decided to try homeschooling for 2020-21, because the spring 2020 remote options didn’t work for their students. Local online homeschool groups had significant growth, and online curriculum providers had bumper crop enrollment and long waiting lists.

It’s also possible that some families might have responded that they were homeschooling, even if their students were doing remote school while enrolled in a public school. It’s hard to know if this year’s numbers represent a return to public schools, a better understanding of the question, or just a different slice of respondents. In addition, the survey occurred in early August, just as school districts were announcing fall mask policies.

Other Factors that Affect Homeschooling

Homeschooling is regulated on the state level and can reflect both local school quality and the level of homeschooling support networks, both formal and informal. The strength of library systems, homeschool support groups, sports opportunities for homeschoolers, local field trip options, and other factors can affect how many students homeschooled in an area. The survey doesn’t correlate the response to the school setting question to location, age of the oldest child, or other demographic qualities. For example, other reporting in 2020 suggested a significant rise in homeschooling among American Black families.

To further complicate this question, some states have charter schools that support home studies. Also, in recent years more online schools have pivoted to serving homeschoolers or moved from teaching specific content areas to homeschoolers to serving as broad curriculum, accredited online schools.

There is a US Census community survey that asks similar questions to the Gallup survey. It will be interesting to see if that also reports the 2020 homeschooling percentage as an outlier.

You can read the complete Gallup survey question responses and see trends over time here.

Space Force Training at the Air Force Academy

space shuttle launch during nighttime

The Space Force became the newest branch of the US military in 2019, and the US Air Force Academy (USAFA) commissions about 100 cadets as Space Force officers each year. This is around 10% of each graduating class. To prepare cadets for future Space Force roles, the Air Force Academy has added more Space Force officers to the staff, increased space oriented academic programs, and created summer training opportunities that expose cadets to life as a Space Force junior officer. The Space Policy Show recently devoted an episode to Space Force training at the Air Force Academy. I thought this was an excellent overview of what cadets experience. It should be of interest to students considering applying to the Air Force Academy.

Space Related Academics

There are several majors associated with space, including Astronautical Engineering and Space Operations. However, cadets in any major can also complete the Space Warfighting minor. There are four different tracks within the minor: Operator, Intel, Digital, and Acquisition. Each track has several required courses plus related electives that cadets can choose from to meet the minimum 15 credits.

Space Force Training

Exposure to the Space Force starts with required briefings as part of the professional training for new freshman cadets. Opportunities to learn from Space Force officers continue throughout the four years at USAFA. Space related clubs include the Cadet Space Operations Squadron, an astronomy club, rocketry club, and a strategy & policy club. These activities are open to any cadets, not just those aiming for the Space Force.

Cadet summer training traditionally includes the Operations Air Force program, where rising juniors learn about potential career fields at Air Force bases around the US. In Summer 2021, through the new Operations Space Force program, around 70 cadets visited Space Force bases to get a deeper orientation to what they might do if they become Space Force officers.

Finally, the Air Force Academy is developing a program for rising seniors called Azimuth. This is an intensive summer training and assessment program modeled on the Naval Academy’s Leatherneck training for prospective Marine Corps officers. The Azimuth program will draw from pre-astronaut candidate training to “motivate, inform and also evaluate” cadets. The Space Force assignment board will consider performance in Azimuth, academics, and extracurricular activities when making service assignments decisions.

Conclusion

Over forty Air Force Academy alumni have become astronauts and the Air Force has many space related missions. However, the Space Force is more than just space operators. The Air Force Academy plans to expose cadets to the range of responsibilities held by future Space Force officers. The goal of these initiatives are to generally increase “space mindedness” for all cadets. This will help them in their careers, whether they commission as Space Force or Air Force Officers.

There will be very few opportunities to commission into the Space Force from other service academies. According to Col. Jeffrey Greenwood, the US Space Force Liaison to the Air Force Academy “If you want to come to the Space Force, you need to come to the Space Force Academy – and that is USAFA.” This echos comments from Chief of Space Operations Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond (the service chief of the Space Force) in June 2021. Because the Space Force only brings in around 300 officers a year, he doesn’t see a need for a separate Space Force Academy. The largest group of officers will come from USAFA and Air Force ROTC. The Space Force also has a University Partnership Program to reach out to college STEM majors who are interested in space.

High school students interested in the Space Force should watch the whole episode. It will give you a broad view of what training you might expect as a cadet. It may even suggest topics to discuss in application essays or during interviews. If the idea of attending a service academy sounds interesting, consider applying for one of the academy summer leadership programs when you are a high school junior.

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