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Home / News / Education / December College Search Guide

December College Search Guide

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The road to college

By May S. Ruiz

Just as we thought we were finally seeing a decrease in COVID-19 infection rates, comes the news that a highly transmissible coronavirus variant – Omicron – is causing great anxiety all over the world. Several countries, including the United States, are restricting travel to and from southern Africa. It has put a new wrinkle on people’s plans to travel during the holidays to be with relatives and friends they haven’t seen in almost two years.

We have yet to find out if this will affect schools as students have finally returned on campus two months ago and are adjusting to a new normal. The coronavirus pandemic changed the way learning is delivered not only for elementary and high schools but for colleges and universities as well.

College admissions also adapted to the circumstances when SAT, ACT, and AP tests got canceled because of the pandemic. It foretold the beginning of the end to standardized testing.

However, it wasn’t due to COVID-19 that the 10-campus UC and 23-campus Cal State systems went test-optional. It was because they were convinced that performance on the SAT and ACT is so strongly influenced by family income, parents’ education, and race that using them for high stakes admissions decisions is wrong.

On November 18th, Teresa Watanabe of the L.A. Times reported that the University of California is dropping standardized tests altogether after faculty could not find an alternative exam. In her follow-up article on the 23rd, she quoted FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, in stating that the UC and Cal State systems “would join more than 1,000 other colleges that have gone testing-optional, with 47 more schools joining in the last 12 months, double the number over last year.”        

As I wrote last year in this monthly guide, this means the only components of students’ applications are the personal essay and their GPA. And as I have constantly preached to students, and parents who are helping and guiding them through the process, high schoolers should make sure they are getting good grades in all their subjects. The student’s GPA is now the singular, most important component of their college application. It reflects not merely what they’ve learned in the classroom but is an indicator of how well prepared they are to tackle the rigors of college and a predictor of their success when they get in.

Their personal essay is the other piece that has taken on a greater significance. Admissions officers have to get to know your child through their personal statements and determine if they will be the right fit for the incoming class they are trying to build and if they will make a meaningful contribution to the school’s student body. It’s a rather daunting task to accomplish with 500 words. While a college counselor can guide and help your child craft a better essay, make sure it’s in their own voice – admissions officers can easily tell if it sounds contrived and unnatural.              

Photo by Green Chameleon for UnSplash

Another development affecting college admissions is Amherst ending its legacy admissions preference, as reported by Matt Feeney on the New Yorker also on November 23rd. And, as he pointed out, other colleges and universities may soon follow suit.

While both those announcements seem to even out the playing field and make college admissions more equitable, they also translate to ever more students applying for spots that didn’t increase in number. That proved to be the case last admissions cycle when Ivy schools, led by Harvard at 42%, saw a rise in college applications

Meanwhile, SmartAsset, a company that offers financial advice, released its seventh annual study on the colleges that give students the best return on their investments. It listed California at number 5 with the following colleges and universities:    


RankSchoolCityAvg. Scholarships and GrantsAvg. Starting SalaryCollege Tuition*Student Living CostsStudent Retention RateCollege Education Value Index
1California Institute of TechnologyPasadena, CA$41,062$87,600$52,362$19,72298%89.80
2Stanford UniversityStanford, CA$49,255$81,800$51,354$20,23399%87.00
3Harvey Mudd CollegeClaremont, CA$36,443$91,400$56,620$20,32797%86.85
4University of California-BerkeleyBerkeley, CA$19,369$72,600$14,184$23,88297%65.13
5University of California-San DiegoLa Jolla, CA$17,958$65,000$14,167$18,67193%65.01
6California Polytechnic State University-San Luis ObispoSan Luis Obispo, CA$6,768$66,400$9,816$18,48694%62.51
7University of California-Los AngelesLos Angeles, CA$19,300$62,600$13,226$21,39497%57.22
8University of California-DavisDavis, CA$17,958$62,700$14,402$20,77592%54.97
9University of Southern CaliforniaLos Angeles, CA$39,516$66,100$56,225$18,60096%54.74
10University of California-IrvineIrvine, CA$18,216$61,100$13,700$20,56194%54.69


What a relief it must be for your 9th grader – he or she has survived the first semester of high school. While your children’s thoughts may be all about the Christmas holiday, this would be a good time to evaluate their progress. Remind them that while first semester grades don’t show on the final transcript, these are barometers of their academic strengths and weaknesses. Encourage them to use the winter break to plan how to improve where needed and how to build on their successes going into the second semester.


Now is the time to look at their interests to determine what college course they might be suited for. Based on their aptitude and grades, they will have to start planning on their course options for 11th grade. They can also start researching which colleges offer the course they might want to pursue.

Photo by Annie Spratt for Unsplash


This is an all-important year for your 11th grader and it is one of the busiest of their high school career. Your children should be able to successfully balance their academic, extra-curricular, and athletic activities. Hopefully, college counselors have met with you and your children and have given you an overview of the college application process. Your children (and you) should already have been to at least one College Fair and have met with a few admissions officers either in person or via Zoom.


While kids all around are excited about the Christmas holidays, your high school senior is sweating over his or her personal essay or feverishly writing all the supplemental essays colleges require with their application for the regular decision or the second early decision (ED II) round.  

This is a crucial time for seniors. They need as much encouragement as elbow room to get their applications ready for sending. Your children should be in constant communication with the school counselor to ensure that all transcripts, teacher recommendations, and supplemental material are sent to all the colleges to which they are applying. They should be on top of application deadlines for all the schools – they’re not all the same – to which they plan to apply.    

If your 12th grader applied through Early Action (EA) or Early Decision (ED), he or she must also be nervously waiting to hear from the college. And I’m sure your child would be ecstatic to receive an acceptance letter from his or her first choice. An ED means your child is legally bound to matriculate to that university, and his or her college search is over. Whew! If your child is accepted to a school through EA, he or she can either accept that offer or still go on to apply to other schools.

Accepting an EA offer relieves your children of pressure so they can enjoy the Christmas holidays, but it doesn’t give them leverage if they are qualified for scholarships. The best scenario is to apply and get accepted to several colleges so your children can get to pick the best financial offer or scholarship.

If your children are fortunate enough to have heard from their school and have been offered admission, it would be mindful of them not to brag about their acceptance. Some of his or her classmates may have applied to the same school and are hoping for admission. The university to which your child was accepted might be his or her classmate’s first choice. It would be very hurtful to then boast that he or she has been accepted but is not planning on attending that college.

On the other hand, if your children have been deferred on the EA or ED round, there are some things they can do to enhance their chances during the regular round. They can send any updates on any significant changes since they sent their application – a letter from a counselor about their first semester work or a letter from a senior teacher. They can also send in their first semester grades, especially if they have received some As in the meantime.  

Your children can also write a strong letter of interest and intent – all colleges and universities are concerned about their yield. If they are assured that your child will matriculate if accepted, they will look at him or her in a more favorable light (that is, if your child fits the profile they are looking for). This is one reason most colleges have instituted the ED II – they are assured that the applicant will matriculate if accepted. At the same time, it’s disheartening for applicants who aren’t applying for ED II as they would be far fewer slots available making the regular round more competitive than it already is.     

Provide encouragement to your children if they have been deferred – the school isn’t rejecting them, they have just been put in the pool for the regular round. Remember that these admissions officers have thousands of applications to read. They wouldn’t want to go through your children’s application again if they weren’t interested in the first place, they would have just outright rejected them. 

Your children should research all available scholarships, and start completing the FAFSA.

Some useful websites are: CollegeXpress (www.collegexpress.com); Fastweb (www.fastweb.com); Free Application for Federal Student Aid (www.fafsa.ed.gov); National Merit Scholarship Corporation (www.nationalmerit.org);  Scholarships.com (www.scholarships.com); Scholarships360 (www.scholarships360.org); Student Aid on the Web (www.studentaid.ed.gov).

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