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    Where Do I Start?

    Before you begin applying to schools, here are answers you'll need to pull off a successful college search.

    by the Editors

    You've probably got a ton of questions about getting ready for college—including questions about what you can do right now, while you're still in high school.

    Here are some typical questions we hear from high school students—and some solid answers to help you prepare for college. They're taken from The Campus Life Guide to Christian Colleges & Universities (Broadman & Holman), which you can find at your local Christian bookstore or at Christian-book.com.

    I want to make sure I'm doing all I can now to get into a good college. I make good grades, but do colleges look at more than just grades?
    Good grades are a great start. But colleges do look at more than just grades when considering your application. They want a much bigger picture of you.
    For starters, colleges aren't impressed by good grades alone; they'll want to see that you've taken challenging classes. So, don't just take easy classes (like "The History of the No. 2 Pencil"), where good grades don't mean as much. Take hard classes, too (like "Electromagnetic Biomedical Physics in Southeastern Nebraska"). These tougher classes will not only look better on a college application; they will better prepare you for college.
    Colleges are also interested in how well you've done on the SAT and/or the ACT. (We'll talk more about these tests later.)
    But Christian colleges want much more than academic performance and test scores. They're interested in your co-curricular and extracurricular activities, community service, church involvement, spiritual development, job experience, internships, even your family life—essentially anything that's played a vital role in shaping who you are.
    Leadership is also critical. Involvement in activities is good, but taking a leadership role in at least one of them is even better. A leadership role shows colleges you are someone who stands out in a group, someone other people can look to for guidance. And a leadership role tells colleges you're willing to commit your time and energy to something you care about.
    Finally, colleges are interested in what others have to say about you. When you apply to colleges, you'll probably have to submit two or more letters of recommendation from adults who know you well—like a guidance counselor, a teacher or a pastor.
    If you need more advice on what classes to take and what types of activities to pursue to better prepare you for college, talk to your guidance counselor. He or she is your best resource for preparing for college.
    We're big fans of your guidance counselor, and we strongly encourage you to consult him or her any time you have questions about preparing for college.
    What kinds of courses should I be taking in high school?
    In a nutshell, college prep courses—classes that are academically challenging. Take your school's "honors classes," or courses with titles preceded by the words "Advanced Placement." (Some "AP" classes will even earn you college credit.) Your high school probably has a number of course programs geared toward college-bound students. Look into them.
    Even if you're a senior and you've already met your minimum graduation requirements, resist the urge to take all easy classes. They might make your senior year easier, but the lack of intellectual challenge won't help you adjust to the rigorous academics of college. Keep those brain cells in gear.
    Remember, too, that many colleges have minimum entrance requirements in math, English, science, foreign language, etc. Ask your guidance counselor and/or the admissions counselors at colleges you're considering about these requirements.
    While you've got to take a certain number of core curriculum classes to get into college, don't get so caught up in those that you forget about valuable electives, especially in the arts—chorus, band, orchestra, art, drama. Also, consider taking a technology or computer course. These types of electives will make you a more well-rounded student.
    Should I take challenging courses even if I risk getting lower grades?
    Yes. Getting a B in a college prep course looks better on your record than an A in a piece-of-cake class. Giving your best effort in more difficult classes shows colleges you're serious about facing and meeting academic challenges.
    Many high schools reward you for taking challenging classes by giving them more weight when computing your grade-point average. For instance, an A in a regular English class might earn you 4 points on a 4-point scale, but an A in an AP English class might be worth 4.5 points.
    One college admissions counselor told us he's "more impressed with a student who took challenging courses and has a 2.5 GPA than one who ends up with a 3.5 but padded their curriculum with easy classes."
    Another counselor said that his college is "interested in the kinds of classes you've taken. A lot of times students hesitate to take the tougher classes because they think any grade less than an A will hurt their chances of getting scholarships or being accepted. But we want students to challenge themselves as much as possible."
    What types of co-curricular and/or extracurricular activities should I be involved in?
    For the most part, get involved in stuff you like to do. In other words, don't sign up for The Artic Barefoot Marathon Running Club just because you think it might look good on your rÉsumÉ. If you're gonna hate it, don't do it.
    Get involved in a variety of activities that challenge you in different ways—intellectually (the debate club, an academic team), physically (sports, intramurals), artistically (drama, music), and spiritually (Bible club, service organizations).
    But don't spread yourself too thin, especially to the point that your grades suffer. It's better to do a few things well than a bunch of things badly. A college isn't as impressed with how many clubs you joined as it is by what you did in those clubs, how well you did, and what you learned from those experiences.
    One college admissions official advises, "It's smart to have a major activity and several minor ones. In other words, get involved in-depth in one area, but participate in others too."
    Why are Christian colleges so interested in my church activities and community involvement?
    Because these activities help shape your spiritual development, a dimension of your character that Christian colleges especially want to know about. This information gives admissions officials at Christian schools a better feel for who you are and how you'll fit on their campus.
    When you start filling out college applications, you'll come across questions that not only ask about your faith, but about the experiences and activities that have had an impact on your spiritual life.
    Look for activities that help you grow personally and force you to reach out to others—like volunteering at a local food bank, teaching a children's Sunday school class, or taking a short-term missions trip.
    SAT or ACT—which one should I take?
    It depends on the requirements of the colleges you're applying to. Most colleges will accept scores from either test, but some colleges want only one or the other. Ask admissions counselors at the colleges you're considering which test they require.
    Most of the 100-plus schools in the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities require either the SAT or the ACT. A handful accept only the ACT. Several others simply recommend, but don't require, taking one test or the other.
    If you're considering colleges that accept either test, it might be a good idea to take both. Often, students do better on one than the other. Colleges that accept either test usually consider the better of the two scores.
    It's impossible to predict which test you'll score higher on. Generally, about one-third of students who take both tests score higher on the ACT, one-third higher on the SAT, and one-third about the same on each. (If you've taken the preliminary versions of both tests—the PSAT and the PLAN—you may have a better feel for which of the "real" versions you prefer.)
    It's a good idea to take the SAT and/or the ACT twice, because your scores are likely to improve the second time around. One high-school counselor, who advises students to take both the ACT and SAT, said 80 percent of his students raised either their math or verbal score on the SAT by taking it a second time, and 54 percent raised their overall ACT score by taking it a second time.
    What's the best way to prepare for the SAT or ACT?
    The best way is for you to have been a good student all along. Your success on these tests will depend a lot on what you've learned through all your school years. So, in some ways, these tests are a gauge of your cumulative knowledge.
    Does that mean you can't study for these tests? Of course not. You can study, and there are all kinds of services that are willing to help you do it—at a pretty hefty cost. Some test preparation courses charge more than $700, all but "guaranteeing" they'll boost your test score. These prep courses can't make you magically learn things you haven't been learning all along, but they might be able to help you improve your test-taking skills, teach you tricks and techniques for answering questions, and make you feel more comfortable about what can be an intimidating test. Are these services worth it? That's debatable. Some admissions officers question the value of these services, saying that if you're already a pretty good test-taker, they're probably a waste of time and money.
    You can spend much less money by browsing through your local bookstore's reference section, looking for books on taking these tests. There are many helpful books on the shelves, and many of them include sample tests.
    You can also get info about taking the tests on their Web sites—www.act.org and www.sat.org. Or you can ask your guidance counselor for free books and sample tests that will help you prepare.
    Taking the sample tests—under timed conditions and in a quiet place—is probably the best way to prepare. Though you probably won't see the same questions on the real tests (sample tests are just old versions of the SAT and ACT), you'll get a great feel for what the tests are like.
    How can a part-time job in high school help me prepare for college?
    First you should ask yourself if you should get a job. The answer depends on your situation. If you've got a full academic load, you're the captain of the soccer team, you've got the lead role in the school play, you're the chief soloist in your church choir and the vice president of your youth group, and you're responsible for watching your little brother and cooking dinner every night, the answer's a no-brainer: You just don't have time for a part-time job.
    Here's a good rule of thumb: If taking a part-time job is going to affect your performance in other vital areas of your life—like your studies, your spiritual life, your important activities, or the amount of sleep you're getting—it's probably a good idea to avoid the extra work. If you do take on a part-time job, start slowly: Don't start with 25 hours a week. Start at 7-to-10 hours, and if that's working out, ask your boss to gradually increase your hours.
    A part-time job can be an asset when you're applying to colleges, especially if your job is related to your academic and/or career interests. If you want to study forestry, for example, it'll look great on your application if you've worked part-time at a national park.
    But even if your job doesn't directly apply to your future interests, the experience can still be helpful. If nothing else, a part-time job can demonstrate you're responsible enough to handle many demands at once—like academics, extracurricular activities and so on, in addition to your job. Colleges like people who can handle busy schedules.
    How important is it to know what major I want before I start college?
    It's not that important. Colleges don't ask you to choose a major before they'll accept you, though they might ask what fields of study you're interested in. Most colleges don't require you to declare a major until at least your sophomore year.
    One college official says, "It's definitely OK to come to college not knowing what you're going to do with the rest of your life. College is a time for exploration."
    At the same time, it's good to have at least some idea about what you might want to study. Write down your interests, then talk about those interests with the schools you're considering. See if there are areas of study that match your top interests. Look carefully at the majors colleges offer. If you think it might be cool to be an engineer, you probably don't want to apply to schools that don't offer an engineering major.
    Bottom line: Don't get too caught up in deciding on a major now. You might end up crossing colleges off your list prematurely. Keep your options open.
    Take the advice of one college student: "When I started looking for a college, I put all my emphasis on finding a school with a major I wanted. I was looking for a major that would lead to a 'good' career. After praying for God's guidance, I realized I was seeking a career that would impress others—and not necessarily one that would allow me to serve God. So I decided to explore other majors and career possibilities. This really opened me up to look into other schools I never would have considered."