Mastering the Basics in Your College Admissions Process

Mastering the Basics in Your College Admissions Process

In regard to higher education, every Seton family is in a different place in its homeschooling journey.

Some are exceedingly familiar with the college application process, while others feel as though they are wandering in the desert, fatigued and searching for hints about the right path to take in an ever-changing landscape.

In my previous article, I discussed gaining admittance to an Ivy League or other elite school.

My aim for this article is to provide you with some basic information to guide you and give you a confidence boost in navigating any college admissions process.

In general, colleges of all kinds are looking at three criteria when it comes to admissions: prior coursework, SAT/ACT scores, and extra-curricular activities.

These last include everything from participation in sports and the fine arts to volunteer and leadership activities. The first two categories concern the academic life of the student, while the third takes into account life outside the classroom.

Coursework & GPA

For the college, the core picture of a student is made up by the course load the student has undertaken during high school. College admissions departments want to know not only what courses a student has taken, but also if that course load was the most rigorous available to the student.

Currently, education professionals are pushing the importance of Honors, Advanced Placement (AP), and International Baccalaureate (IB) classes to eager students and their parents. While these classes do have their merit, college admissions departments increasingly have their own unique internal ranking system.

They assess the student’s application, to some degree, only against what was available at the student’s school. This means that if a student did not take an AP class since it was not offered, the student is not penalized.

A similar scenario arises with when colleges consider a student’s Grade Point Average (GPA). While many colleges want to see a 4.0 GPA on the transcript, high schools across the country have muddied the waters with creative GPA calculations.

These schools often weigh a specific course—usually an Honors, AP, or IB class—as having a higher GPA possibility.

These schools argue that for tougher courses students should receive more merit on their transcript for their achievements and not be punished for taking a harder course.

An example would be that instead of receiving a 4.0 on a 4.0 scale for a perfect grade in Honors World Literature, a student might receive a 4.5 or 5.0 for the course while still being on a 4.0 scale. This is what is called a weighted GPA.

As a result, is that there is no longer any universal GPA standard. Every college must now sort through the nuances of a particular GPA to gain a better understanding of a prospective student. This is why every college now inquires if a student’s GPA is weighted.

At this point, you might be shaking your head in confusion. If schools are tampering with GPAs, doesn’t that create a skewed playing field? Will not a GPA become arbitrary? As soon as one school or system begins weighting its GPA, won’t others do the same or come up with their own scale?

My answer is yes, and this is part of the mess that is modern education. See my explanation about the Seton GPA in the box below.

Standardized Tests

The ACT and SAT are the most widely accepted and important standardized tests used for undergraduate admissions. Students should take one or the other, no later than the second half of the 11th grade. It is advisable (if it is not a financial hardship) to take the exam earlier, as either test can be taken as often as a student desires to achieve the best scores.

A pre SAT also exists. The Preliminary SAT (PSAT) offers students the potential to win National Merit Scholarships, but sitting for the test can be difficult.

Unlike the regular SAT or ACT, where you can simply go online to register for the exam, you will need to gain permission from your local school district or private school, if they are offering the PSAT, in order to sit for it at their facility.

It can be meritorious for a student to take the pre-SAT, but it is not a pre-requisite.

Are SAT or ACT scores really that important?

Yes, they are. No matter how imperfect these tests may be, they are used in many cases to assess a student’s strength and the depth of their course work.

My bottom line recommendation on the SAT or ACT is to study for either exam as you would for a class. At a minimum, purchase a book on the test you intend to take and visit their respective websites for practice questions, study tips, and test registration.


Extra-curricular Activities

A student’s personal profile is incomplete without an account of activities outside the classroom. Music, sports, mission work, clubs, even learning a trade: all such activities will round out your application.

It provides context for all of your other achievements and helps the college determine if you are a good fit for their school.

Seton students can receive credit for some of their extracurricular activities by recording them on a homeschool transcript and sending them to us. (A homeschool transcript template is available under the Resources tab on your MySeton page).

Leadership activities such as time spent in Boy Scouts or doing volunteer work cannot be recorded on the transcript. Those items should be communicated creatively to the college along with your application.

One Final Tip

Do not wait until the last minute to plan for or apply to college. If you think college may be in your future, think about your prospective paths now. Always seek to be at least 4-6 weeks ahead of deadlines.

This allows for more personal sanity as well as time to resolve inevitable discrepancies as they arise. I will be addressing this tip and others in a future article.

If in the meantime if you have specific questions, do not hesitate to contact me at

About Nick Marmalejo

Nick Marmalejo, a history major, graduated from Christendom College in 2001. He holds a Virginia Teacher Certification and lives in the Shenandoah Valley with his wife and three children.

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