Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

Academic Awards to Earn for College

“Even when you get some recognition, everything you do, you still audition.” – Stephen Sondheim.

asianboytrophyMost American teenagers have shelves filled with plastic trophies from sports and other competitions going back to kindergarten. In contrast, many high school students are at a loss to fill in the five-item list of academic awards in the Common Application. Some students are not sure what they are supposed to do; they ask if community service hours or a music achievement certificate count for this list. In this post I will explain what this section means and how to prepare to shine when filling it out.

As elementary as this may sound, the key word in “academic award” is academic. Not extracurricular, not community service. To put it in simple English, colleges like to see applicants who win academic awards because they are educational institutions.

honorrollMost smart and hard-working high school students will earn some academic awards automatically, finding out about them after the fact, such as a marking period honor roll. Many academic awards, however, must be anticipated in advance; the student must prepare and perhaps even formally apply to earn the honor. In fact, it is a good habit for a young person to learn in advance about awards that can be won in high school, in college, or in graduate school to help set goals and make a plan to achieve them. For example, if a high school student wants to be valedictorian, he or she needs to be aware of, and operating toward, that goal from Day #One of 9th Grade. A college student needs to learn about the qualifications for Phi Beta Kappa as a freshman and direct one’s achievements accordingly throughout the four years. A law student cannot decide at the end of the first year that it might be a good idea to be on Law Review; it must be a goal from the beginning.

trophyboysmileTo guide your student in this way of thinking early on, it is essential to find out what academic awards your high school offers. Some high schools, often rigorous independent schools, minimize awards for students. I am not sure what the reasoning is for limiting opportunities for recognition; perhaps they want to avoid creating competition among students, but in a highly selective school, students are already pretty ambitious. Recognition is always a good idea, especially for adolescents, who can only benefit from positive reinforcement. The profile sent to colleges will clarify which awards your high school does or does not offer, so it cannot be assumed that your son or daughter failed to earn any if they are simply not offered. If your high school does not offer awards, your student could seek external sources of recognition.

The awards your student should plan to be earning for college applications include the following, if offered by your high school:

1. Honor roll and/or high honor roll.  Of course, your student should be trying to earn the highest possible GPA, since grades are the most important factor in admissions decisions. This behavior will automatically earn honor or high honor roll designation for multiple marking periods.

gradwithtrophy2. National Honor Society. NHS is an organization consisting of individual high school chapters throughout the United States and Canada. Selection is based on four criteria: scholarship, leadership, service, character. Every high school chapter sets its own specific standards, but it typically requires a benchmark level GPA, documented community service hours, demonstration of leadership roles, and teacher recommendations. Typically students are inducted in spring of the junior year; I recommend that sophomores find out who the high school chapter’s faculty adviser is and ask for an application to learn what is required and when. Most colleges expect that strong students in a high school that has an NHS chapter will be members, so it is advisable to suggest advanced planning for NHS. (Incidentally, National Honor Society is not to be confused with National Society of High School Scholars.)

languagelearning3. The “Other” National Honor Societies.  The Cum Laude Society honors scholastic achievement at the high school level similar to the Phi Beta Kappa Society, which honors achievements at the university level. Each local high school chapter may elect up to 20% of the members of the senior class, half at the end of  junior year or at any time during senior year and the remainder at the end of senior year. Unfortunately, some members will not be elected in time to register the honor on college applications. Subject-specific honor societies include: Spanish (Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica), French (Société Honoraire de Français), German (Delta Phi Alpha), Math (Mu Alpha Theta),  Science, Art, Music (Tri-M), Speech & Debate, Journalism (Quill & Scroll), and Theater (International Thespian Society). Urge your student to find out if there are chapters  in your high school, and what is required to be accepted.

4. Subject-specific exams. In areas of academic strength, encourage your student to participate in subject-specific exams or competitions; your student can contact his or her subject teacher to find out how to participate, or check out the official web site of the sponsoring organization. Such exams include (to name a few): National Latin Exam, National French Contest (Le Grand Concours), National Spanish Exam, American Mathematics Competitions, and Science Olympiad.

SAT5. National Merit Scholarship. In October of  junior year, your student will take the PSAT-NMSQT in school. He or she will have taken the PSAT once before, as a sophomore, and may or may not have prepared for the 10th grade exam sitting. This test date counts, not with the colleges, but for the National Merit Scholarship Program, a competition for recognition and university scholarships administered by the non-profit National Merit Scholarship Corporation (NMSC). Of the 1.5 million NMSP entrants, about 50,000 qualify for recognition. More than two-thirds of qualifiers receive Letters of Commendation (through the high school in September of senior year); a third of the 50,000 become Semifinalists, 94% of whom go on to become Finalists. Over half the Finalists are selected for merit scholarships. I recommend that juniors prepare for the PSAT with a tutor or, at minimum, with a test prep book, so as to perform at least well enough to earn a Letter of Commendation, and maybe even higher.

girlwithawards6. AP Scholar Awards. The College Board recognizes strong performers on its AP (Advanced Placement) exams. Each winner receives a certificate, acknowledged on AP score reports sent to colleges after the award has been conferred. Awards are added to students’ online score reports in late August; test-takers are notified by email if they have earned an award, with certificates sent by mail in September. The College Board AP web page lists the criteria for AP Scholar award levels.

roboticsIf your student is well into the process of earning some of the above awards, you’re done, right? Well, it depends on one’s goals. For most colleges and universities, even quite prestigious ones, the above awards are enough. However, if your son or daughter is targeting an Ivy or other super-elite institutions (e.g., MIT, Cal Tech, Stanford, Chicago), more cut-above awards should be sought. Competitions to consider: Intel Science Talent Search, Siemens Competition in Math, Science & Technology, National High School Quiz Bowl, Junior Science & Humanities Symposia, Google Science Fair,  BioGENEius Challenges, FIRST Robotics, Lego, or Tech Championship, JFK Profiles in Courage Essay Contest, Scholastics Arts & Writing Awards. If placing at at a competitive national level, participation in American Mathematics Competitions and Science Olympiad would be considered in this standout category.

For more in-depth information about national and international high school academic competitions, consult Academic Competitions for Gifted Students: A Resource Book for Teachers and Parents 2nd Ed. by Mary K. Tallent-Runnels and Ann C. Candler-Lotven or The Best Competitions for Talented KidsWin Scholarships, Big Prize Money, and Recognition 2nd Ed. by Frances Karnes and Tracy Riley.