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Guest Blog: Context Counts

Posted by on Monday, December 19, 2011 in Admissions Committee, Application Process.

Vanderbilt's Tree of Knowledge Decked Out for the Holidays (Photo: Derek Bruff)

This past Thanksgiving, just when I thought I was safely removed from the hustle and bustle of reading season, I happened to be flipping channels and stopped on a news report regarding college admissions. Try as I might not to succumb to thinking about work, I eventually relented and watched the report – which became one of the most disconcerting elements of my Thanksgiving holiday.

The reporter portrayed two different students: one who was exceptionally involved inside and outside school while also taking a rigorous college-prep curriculum at a high school where Advanced Placement (AP) classes were not offered. The other student was involved in extracurricular activities yet had the opportunity to take AP courses. The gist of the reporter’s tale was this: students who do not have the opportunity to take AP classes in high school are automatically disadvantaged in highly selective college admissions even in light of other factors. I sat with an incredulous expression, mouth agape. This simply is not true. You can’t just simplify the complexity of selective college admissions like that!

While I hope that none of you were distracted from the aroma of turkey and dressing due to this story, I would like to quell some concerns that it might have raised. At Vanderbilt, our application process is holistic – meaning that we consider all aspects of a student’s record. Academic achievement, standardized testing, extracurricular involvement, the personal essay, and recommendations are all valued in our process. We’re also holistic within the areas that we evaluate. Take, for instance, academic achievement: We expect that students applying to Vanderbilt have taken the most challenging curriculum available at their high school.

So, my advice to students is simply to take the most rigorous courses available – whether that means AP courses, an IB diploma curriculum, honors courses, or simply the most “advanced” classes offered at one’s high school. Moreover, do well! And do well throughout high school! Not only do we look for rigor of curriculum, we also notice if senioritis kicked in early during your high school career, so making C’s and D’s after being a straight A student probably won’t help you.

If you remember one thing from this post, remember this: As admissions counselors who travel around the globe, we understand that not every high school is the same, and what we expect to see is that you’ve done exceptionally well within the academic offerings available to you.

We should now return to the plight of the two students interviewed by the reporter, with whom, I will remind you, I whole-heartedly disagree. The first student should take solace in the fact that he’s maxed out the curriculum available at his high school and has done well while also pursuing other opportunities. With respect to the second student, we do like to see AP classes when available, but simply taking AP courses alone does not ensure a “leg up.” Again, we look at the whole student, so a rigorous curriculum must also be matched with outstanding extracurricular involvement, outstanding letters of recommendation, an outstanding essay, outstand … well, you get the picture.

So, rest easy readers. Don’t feel the need to petition your high schools to revolutionize their curriculums (unless education reform is your thing – then you should check out Vanderbilt’s Peabody College). Just take the most advanced curriculum available at your school, get involved in something you’re passionate about, and try your best in everything. Challenge yourself and do well. And it’s probably wise not to believe everything you hear on network news, too.

By: Dustin Lynn, Admissions Counselor, Texas (San Antonio)

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