Ask any high school student with college ambitions, and he or she will tell you it’s much, much harder to get into some state universities than it used to be.
For example, David Carre took seven AP classes, got a 1930 on his SAT, and had a 4.3 grade point average at Everglades High School. His classmate, Ariadna Naterri, also had seven AP classes, plus some dual enrollment courses, with a 4.5 GPA. Gino Tornese took nine AP classes at Northeast High School and earned a 4.4 GPA. What do all of these students have in common?
“I was all about Gator nation,” Carre said. Each of them desperately wanted to attend the University of Florida.
“I got denied,” Natteri said. In fact, UF turned each of them down.
“Pretty disappointing, yeah, really disappointing, actually, heart-breaking, almost,” said Tornese, who was counting on joining his older brother, a student at Florida, in Gainesville.
“You know I still don’t understand at this point,” said Carre, who, like Tornese, will be attending Florida State University in the fall.
“Literally made me cry,” Naterri said, as she laughed about the rejection now. She will be an FIU student next fall.
Thousands of students end up in the same rejected boat. Admission to UF has gotten much harder over the past two decades, with the average GPA’s of incoming freshmen rising from 3.7 in 1994 to 4.3 last year. The ripple effect of rejected students from UF applying to other state universities has made FSU, UCF, FIU, FAU and the rest more selective as well, because so many more students are applying. Many families are taking advantage of the value of state schools, good quality undergraduate education at bargain prices, to save money for graduate school. Even the private University of Miami has been affected, with standards for admission going up in Coral Gables over the years as well.
“The competition has gotten pretty crazy for colleges in the last couple of years,” Tornese said.
Having a high grade point average isn’t a guarantee of admission anymore. Colleges look at the classes you took to see how you got that GPA.
“Schools like the University of Florida expect that a student will be taking those most rigorous courses, they know which courses are hard and know which courses are not so a student is not well-served by taking a number of easier courses and getting a higher GPA,” explains Marcia Hunt. She’s been head of the college counseling office at Fort Lauderdale’s Pine Crest School for 30 years.
The director of freshmen admissions at UF, Andrea Felder, agrees with Hunt.
“For students to be competitive, certainly they’ll want to take the most challenging courses available to them," Felder said.
However, that means the most challenging courses a student can handle. If you're not ready for AP calculus or AP physics, take the lower level class instead. Felder says UF takes other, holistic considerations into account as well, such as a student's background and extracurricular activities.
“We certainly do have space for students who are very smart and will spend most of their time in the library but we want students to be involved and get a full, rich engagement of the campus experience so we’re looking for those other factors as well," Felder said.
“Colleges do not want couch potatoes," Hunt says. "They want to see that they're making contributions to their school or their community."
Hunt says that can mean volunteering for a charity, playing varsity sports, playing in the school orchestra, or working. Some students have to work to help pay the family's bills or they have to take care of siblings after school, and Hunt says make sure you let colleges know if you're in that situation.
"They recognize that as just as serious a commitment as playing varsity soccer, for example," Hunt said.
The important thing, Hunt says, is to show long-term commitment to a cause, rather than a laundry list of short involvements.
The quest to get into competitive colleges has to begin early, in middle school, to take classes that are prerequisites for high school classes. Hunt says meet with a counselor in 9th grade and plan your courses, taking the toughest ones that are right for you, whether they're honors, AP, IB, dual enrollment, or Cambridge.
It's also critical to prepare thoroughly for the SAT and the ACT because while a high score isn't always a ticket into UF or FSU, a low score will sabotage a students chances. With the new SAT coming out in 2016, the college board has created a partnership with the on-line Khan Academy to offer free SAT prep classes to everyone. The online tutoring starts in June.
"It's a terrific resource and will cost students nothing," Hunt said.
Felder says a popular route into UF for students who bloomed late in high school is to go to Miami-Dade or Broward College for two years, earn their AA degrees with high GPA's, and then transfer to Gainesville.
Finally, if you don't get into your first-choice school, don't despair.
“You can thrive anywhere, and it’s all about what students do when they get to that next-level school," Hunt said. "Often our students who are very upset if their college search doesn't go the way they want and they wind up at another school they comeback and say to us, 'I am at the perfect school, I don't know what I was thinking.'"
There is life after high school, and it can be good wherever you go to college.