Great Expectations: The Journey of College Preparation

Madeline Phuong and Ganga Subramanian

November. The first of many deadlines in the stress-inducing journey that is college admissions. Much like the graduating classes before it—and the ones following it—the Spartan class of 2023 must endure what is, for many, an obscure and uncertain process. In fact, according to self-reported statistics for Homestead High School’s class of 2021, 93.9% of graduating seniors pursued higher education in a two- or four-year college. 

For some, this is inspiring, as students take their education into their own hands, often achieving higher wages and increased job security in the process. For others, college admissions become even more daunting, as competition for limited spots grows even larger. This fall, future Homestead graduates contemplate their postsecondary goals and confront the college admissions process. 

Spartans today

Year-by-year college readiness checklists often portray the freshman year of high school as a period of acclimating middle schoolers to high school. Others consider it a time to determine possible careers early and to start gaining accolades. 

Freshman Nia Byers, who has always wanted to be a veterinarian, is interested in planning ahead. 

“I have been working on finding volunteer and shadowing opportunities for myself so that I can gain some experience,” Byers said. She is planning to join clubs and experience new things, while refusing to limit herself to one interest. She hopes to prioritize her academics this year as well. Byers wants to be a well-rounded student, but will also keep her postsecondary goals in mind as she progresses through the school year. 

High school students are expected to begin formulating their postsecondary goals in sophomore year. According to Federal Student Aid—an office of the United States Department of Education—students should research majors, attend career information events and discuss colleges with their high school counselors. In addition, it is expected that sophomores spend their summer productively.  

While freshman year and sophomore year are typically known for their (relative) tranquility, junior year is notorious for being one of the most difficult years of high school. It is the year that students scramble to join extracurriculars, gain leadership positions and get serious about their futures. At Homestead High School, juniors are offered more Advanced Placement (AP), dual credit, honors and elective courses than any year prior. Admissions officers expect students to take advantage of as many rigorous courses that their high school provides. 

Colleges look at a student’s cumulative grade point average (GPA) at the end of junior year for admissions decisions, and merely ask for senior year grades after enrollment to ensure that a student is on track academically. Even though 67% of the GPA work has been finished by the end of sophomore year, there is significant academic pressure during the eleventh grade. 

Daniel Lopez, current junior and prospective engineer, expressed that he has felt the pressure of college applications even before junior year. Academically, he feels prepared, but when it comes to building an impressive resume, he feels a little less secure.

“By sophomore year, or maybe even by freshman year, it seems as if one already has to have a general idea about what they want to do after high school,” Lopez said. “I still feel unprepared in that I’m somewhat unaware of what colleges look for in a student.” 

Lopez is not alone in his uncertainty, as others in the class of 2024 share his confusion and frustration. It is no secret that colleges look for stellar grades and test scores, but there is no one extracurricular or activity that guarantees admission. Even the most stellar candidates for top schools are not exempt from rejection. 

Fellow junior Sai Ramani, who plans to study music performance and eventually become a professor of Jazz Studies, said that “competition at the collegiate level is intense.” On top of balancing academics and extracurriculars, Ramani will have to complete an audition as a part of a supplemental application. 

To prepare for the unique college admissions process and his eventual major, Ramani participates in several music-related extracurriculars, including jazz band, marching band, all-state and all-nation ensembles. He even plays gigs around town in his spare time. 

Similarly, Kyra Wagmeister (12) plans to study music performance as well as biochemistry in college. With help from a college consultant, Wagmeister began looking into prospective colleges in the middle of her junior year. She visited campuses and narrowed down her list over the summer before senior year.

However, her college preparation journey began well before that. In the classroom, Wagmeister took advantage of available honors and AP classes in her sophomore and junior years to prepare for the rigor of college courses.

“In school, it’s a lot easier to focus on the academic side versus the personal growth side,” Wagmeister said. “Outside of school, you can show your character through various activities or clubs.”

While she did not regret her course load over the past three years, she recognized that taking higher level classes resulted in less time for her interest in music performance. Looking back at her high school career, Wagmeister suggested some improvements to how high school can prepare students for higher education: “It would be a lot better if we’re always being challenged—in a healthy way, not in an extreme setting.”

Beyond meeting the pressure to perform well academically, she wants to find a way to pique the interest of college admissions officers. As the college applicant pool grows by the year, students must differentiate themselves from the crowd to heighten their chances of acceptance.

The expectation

Dennis Eller—Wagmeister’s college consultant and owner of Eller’s College Connection—affirmed the importance of academic and extracurricular planning when it comes to college applications. However, that’s not all that students should be thinking about.

“There is so much more to high school than your college resumé,” Eller said. “Find those classes, those clubs, those teams that interest you. Throw yourself into those. Colleges value depth over breadth.”

He recommended that students go beyond the classroom as well, encouraging engagement in community events and service. From personal observation, Eller further noted an increase in “herd mentality” among high schoolers in recent years, both in terms of applying to college and declaring one’s major. He advised that students take the time to find a place of higher education that complements their interests and goals.

“Colleges have personalities just like students do,” Eller said. “‘Know thyself’ first and then seek an undergraduate experience that will help you grow[] in all the ways that you want and need to grow.”

Amy Hamilton, who has been a grade 10 to 12 counselor at Homestead for two decades, helps students determine exactly what type of higher education experience they seek. From those looking into the military to those going straight into the workforce, Hamilton gives students support through sophomore-, junior- and senior-year meetings. She encouraged students to evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, interests, income goals and preferred living location to narrow down career options.

“Usually, when a student tells me what they are thinking about doing and then they take a test or quiz, we find that they are already on the right track,” Hamilton said. “The sooner they start planning in high school, the less it’ll be stressful.”

Lastly, Hamilton gave advice for students as they visit college campuses and decide where to apply and attend: “Keep notes on your visits. Take pictures. The more you know, the better your decision will be.”

Purdue University in West Lafayette is one of 86 postsecondary institutions in Indiana and one of thousands in the United States. Assistant Director of Admissions Stephanie Hollister stated that “Purdue looks for students who are academically prepared to succeed in their chosen major as well as competitive to the overall applicant pool.” A competitive applicant has potential both inside and outside the classroom, which can be demonstrated through extracurricular leadership, perseverance in personal life and a variety of other ways. Despite this, there is no set formula to success in the college application process.

“Since we use a holistic review, we look carefully at both the academic and personal factors in every application,” Hollister said. “Both of these are important and we don’t treat them like a math equation. We want to treat each application as representing a whole person.”

This interplay between self-discovery and higher education is bound to vary from student to student. Purdue Fort Wayne (PFW) admissions counselor Griffen Waltmire maintained that everyone is on a unique higher education journey.

“No one is going to have life figured out the first day of college, so try your best to ask questions, be vulnerable to change and be open to learning a field that you wish to go into,” Waltmire said. “Although it may seem like a scary concept, college is an experience of a lifetime.”

When looking for prospective freshmen, he values students who possess positivity, creativity and curiosity. While PFW maintains academic expectations through its 2.3 GPA minimum, Waltmire mentioned an equally important aspect: “mental health and awareness.” He conceded that “college can be challenging at times” and that this recognition is crucial to prioritize student health in higher education.

In the same way, Ethan Wright—admissions counselor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI)—highlighted the importance of authenticity for students’ sakes.

“As an individual who grew up in Northern Indiana being a homosexual male, being my true self was hard at times. However, here at IUPUI I never had an issue,” Wright said. “Be authentically you. Make sure you are trying your best to achieve what you want to achieve. Do not let other[s] make decisions for you.”

In addition, he recommended balancing academic and personal growth during one’s high school years. Now “a test optional facility,” IUPUI does not simply focus on the numbers. Wright underscored the insight that colleges can gain from effective personal essays, which give students the opportunity to share their interests, significant life events and future plans.

Universities such as Purdue West Lafayette, PFW and IUPUI are not students’ only options when it comes to higher education. In fact, the community college system is a postsecondary route that often allows greater flexibility in one’s educational experience. Robyn Frederick, who is Ivy Tech Community College Fort Wayne’s Director of Admissions, explained that Ivy Tech has courses and training programs that can be completed in less than four years while still providing students with strengthened career opportunities.

“I have talked with students who didn’t think college was for them before exploring the community college system,” Frederick said. “We work with students at all points in their higher education journey.”

Looking back

To gain greater perspective on the college application process, there are no better people to consult than those who have gone through the process and came out unscathed on the other end. 

Emmalyn Meyers, a class of 2020 Homestead graduate and current sophomore at Arizona State University, reflected on her college application process. 

Meyers rejected the idea that colleges are looking for authenticity in their applicant pool: “If college admissions representatives were truly looking for authenticity in applications, why would all admissions coaches tell applicants to exaggerate and oversell their accomplishments?” She stated that it is all about students’ presentation on their Common Application that counts. 

Looking back, Meyers found that high schoolers are put under extreme pressure “to start facing their future” and the age that this starts “keeps getting smaller.” Figuring out where passions lie and what students want to do with their future takes careful consideration, plenty of time and experience. Having to choose early places a considerable burden on students who are interested in a variety of subjects or who haven’t found their passion yet. However, no student is the same, and some come early to these conclusions. 

Meyers then transitioned into talking about her own “college journey,” considering the way that she comes across “at face value.” She described preparing herself to be the best possible college applicant through rigorous courses, extracurriculars and essays, “just to go to a school with one of the highest acceptance rates in the country.” However, Meyers stated that not only did the process help her to gain a newfound appreciation for her experience at ASU, but that she had also learned a lot about herself. 

In addition, Meyers addressed the dream school phenomenon, having experienced it herself. Many students have a dream school based on the criteria that matters to them—a beautiful campus, the ideal Greek life, top-notch academics, etc. The reality of college applications is that even after all the hard work, college decisions are ultimately a lottery. Students can share their achievements, character and love of learning to tip the scale one way or another, but there is no guarantee of admission. 

Meyers tacked on her own special advice for current students who are dreading the process: “Being rejected from your dream school does not make you any less valuable as a student, person, or friend.”

Another class of 2020 Homestead graduate, June Hill, who currently resides in Portland, Oregon as a sophomore at Reed College, provided her own unique perspective on the process.  

Her advice for those hearing horror stories about students who have it all—a perfect GPA, 1600 SAT, an award in four different sports, 200+ hours of volunteering—but do not get into any of their top choices, is that it isn’t necessary to be “superman.” However, it is important to display a love of learning; being “a genuine, caring person” is far more memorable than test scores. Most notably, she took the stance that colleges do look for authenticity in their applicant pool.

“Colleges don’t care about the things you don’t care about,” Hill said. She believes in the old adage that quality over quantity is more impressive to colleges when it comes to extracurriculars. This has the advantage that it is easier on a high school student’s schedule to only participate in extracurricular activities that are meaningful to them.

Hill added that it is important to “prioritize your mental health,” since the college admissions process is difficult. It can often help to lean on the people that are closest to provide the necessary support to get through a mentally taxing time. 

Ultimately, she provided clarity: “Guess what? College isn’t everything. It’s not the end of the world if you don’t get into the school you want, or if you end up somewhere you don’t love as much as you thought you would.”