College Admission CSU EAP EPT ERWC

The Great Escape: How to tunnel your way out of HS and into college

The shortlink for this post is:

High school can be a prison-of-war like experience for many.You’re stuck in it for a specific time, you don’t get to choose your prison camp leaders (teachers), you don’t get to choose your fellow prison campers etc…


but what can make high school the most prison-like, is this constant push for college readiness. When you make school about what you need to get ready for you do the following:

  • You make kids feel that nothing special or important happens until AFTER they graduate.
  • You make teachers feel that the purpose of their classroom is to get students ready for something special that happens later.
  • You show kids that the end is more important than the means- Immanuel Kant and others are disappointed in this idea.

That mentality is a crime. There are students who never make it out of:

  • College-I’ll never forget Brett- we made a bet that he lost and to cover the bet he made me breakfast and brought it to school, I then made a follow-up bet on whether or not Adam Morrison would ever start for the Bobcats– I lost the bet and ended up treating Brett to a dinner at a restaurant of his choice. He chose Morton’s Steak House and really enjoyed his fifty-dollar steak. Unfortunately he is not longer making bets with anyone. I miss him.
  • High School (Julia, Natasha, Jonathan and too many others) I’ll never forget Julia she would make it a point to visit me after school and would ask me how I was doing- it was never about her- she just wanted to see if I was doing okay. We need more Julias in this world.
  • Elementary school (Zach) Zach was my son’s friend in elementary school- I remember my son, his friend Ethan, and Zach working on a cool project regarding electricity. They ended up going to Zach’s grandfather’s house several times to build a fake TV set that lit up. The TV screen was a drawing of a monster attacking the city. They loved working on that project.

Last week for the first time my son said “I hate school and can’t wait for summer.” I’ve never heard him complain about school until middle-school. He is swamped with homework and sees no light at the end of the tunnel and gets little joy from many of his assignments. His sadness made me write the following Tweet the next day.

How about making school less like practice for something amazing coming up later and more like a performance, a production, or a game? Kids would go crazy if they practiced for four years on the football field in the hopes of making a college team without ever getting to play in a game. Let’s make school fun and meaningful NOW rather than just an endless series of preparation: preparing for tests, college and careers.


Okay… rant turned OFF.

Enough about what school SHOULD be like, let’s talk about what it currently is. School is currently the four-year-long line to the amusement park ride called college and your wonderful life after college. So how can you make sure you measure up to the entrance requirements for the ride?


How can you make sure your prison escape leads to permanent freedom and doesn’t end up somewhere you will be disappointed with?


Every year I spend time at back-to-school and in class talking to parents and students about how to make the most of their high school experience in preparation for what comes next. I’m writing this blog post as a permanent resource for both parents and students to make sure they won’t miss a thing. I will update this blog post as needed to include the information that you need to maximize the pursuit of your goal.

IMPORTANT FACT: “Approximately 58 percent of first-time, full-time students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a 4-year institution in fall 2004 completed a bachelor’s degree at that institution within 6 years.” (From The National Center for Educational Statistics)

Some universities have even LOWER graduation rates and obviously some school have higher graduation rates. The trick isn’t to get INTO a college, it’s to ultimately graduate from a college. People drop out of college for many reasons

  • Money
  • A lack of academic endurance (either on specific tasks, or just getting through four+ years of a task without their parents bugging them every night… PS dear helicopter parents you aren’t teaching your son/daughter this crucial skill by hand-holding your child through high school- I too struggle with letting my son fail and succeed on his own- let’s all work on that together.)
  • Picking the wrong college




First of all know this- whichever college you choose, even if it’s not your first or second choice will end up making you happy. Don’t believe me? Just watch this TED talk on the surprising happiness of not getting your number one choice fulfilled.

I’ve shown this video to my seniors the last two years

College is expensive. Even going to a public school like UC Irvine is going to cost you around $60,000 in tuition and fees and that’s if you finish in four years. You will need to make monthly payments of around $700.00 for the next ten years to pay that off (total payment of 82,000) that’s a big burden when you are first starting out and it can really limit your options as far as where you can live and what job you can take.

I think many parents pick colleges based on either what schools they went to, what schools they are familiar with, or what schools they hear about. Kids pick their colleges for many reasons, but the number one reason is this: they want a school that is good enough that their parents will let them leave home. Very few of my students want to go to local college and live at home unless money is a MAJOR issue.

Obviously you can use a website like the U.S. News College Rankings and Best Colleges list,  and I really like The Daily Beast (Newsweek’s online site) and their list of best and worst colleges and if you really want to get technical you could look at a college’s R.O.I. (Best colleges for Return on Investment)  to see how well that investment will pay off.  But rankings and R.O.I. are just a part of the story. I often ask students these questions BEFORE they choose a school:

  • Have you completed a school visit? (you are going to spend $80,000 and you haven’t even visited the school yet?) You can schedule a tour or even an overnight visit to a college some schools like the University of Florida’s Engineering school have specialized tours and if you can’t make it to a school you can either find a nearby school that is hosting a college recruiter or some schools like McGill in Montreal, Canada will allow you to request a college recruiter visit your high school campus, if possible.
  • Have you explored the webpage of your college major? I know students check out the main page of the University, but what do you know about the professors and the specifics of a university school or major like the spin-off projects from the M.I.T. Media Lab?
  • Read reviews: sure you can go to Yelp and Facebook and see what people have to say about your potential school , but WAY more helpful than that is to use to find out the nitty gritty about your potential teachers BEFORE you go to this school. While I’m not a big fan of RatemyTeacher, mostly because the reviews are too short and high school students don’t have a ton of perspective when they write reviews as a fourteen year-old, has some great reviews- don’t just pick the easy professors, learn about the great professors, the ones who expand their students’ minds and prepare them for life. I mean just read the reviews about Professor Julia Lupton at UC Irvine it makes me want to go back to college just to listen to her again.

If you haven’t done any of the above steps then I don’t really think you are serious about finding the right college for you and you are just going through the motions. The stakes are too high to just go through the motions. Do your research.


Okay so you’ve created your list of dream schools or you just dream about universities, now we need to turn those dreams into reality. There are many factors that go into a school accepting your son/daughter for specifics on this you might want to check out this webpage on how UC Freshmen applications are reviewed.

The two biggest components are grades and your scores on either the SAT or ACT. You can find sites like this graphic analysis of GPA and SAT scores for freshmen admission to the UCs or you can go straight to the source and see the University of California Freshmen Admission Profiles. As you can see getting good grades matter. Competitive schools do want to see you challenge yourself with a rigorous course load but you want to keep the following in mind:

Getting a D will almost assuredly ruin your chance to get into a great school. I had a student, Ginger Ivey, completely brilliant. She was the newspaper Editor for two years. She attended and earned good grades in a summer program at UC Santa Cruz. She did not get accepted into UC Santa Cruz and that was because of a D earned in math. DON’T GET D’s. Heck don’t get C’s, if you plan on going to a competitive school. The time you spend fighting for a B in a subject that is difficult for you would be better spent getting As in your other classes, studying for the SAT/ACT, or just exploring areas of interest and participating in areas of passion.  I am going to be perfectly happy if my son takes one or TWO AP classes and then has a mix of college-prep courses and electives of his choosing.

You do not need to go to a nationally ranked four-year school to become great at something.

Tracy Caldwell Dyson

This is a picture of American Astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson

My wife, my son, and I went to hear her speak. She is amazing and brilliant if you don’t believe me just click on the Wiki link that I attached to her name. She attended a local four year school called California State University of Fullerton. CSUF is NOT on the list of highly desired school for my AP students and yet it provided the perfect environment for Ms. Caldwell Dyson to become an accomplished and celebrated NASA astronaut who has spent of 188 days in space. It is not WHERE you go it’s what you DO when you are there. Any university or college will provide you the space to spread your wings and find your passion.


This is my brother Tyler McQuade

He finished high school at sixteen and went straight to a two-year junior college, then double-majored at UC Irvine, PhD at Wisconsin, post-doctorate at M.I.T. then assistant professor at Cornell. He started at a junior college. It’s not WHERE you START it’s where you are GOING that matters.

I will talk more about Junior College below.

While it’s important to get good grades, don’t let the quest for grades ruin four years of your precious childhood. If you are driven and smart you will find success in your college or career.

I have a student who is attending UC San Diego next year. He is taking ONE AP class in his senior year. He can do this because he took four his junior year and SMASHED his SAT score.  While grades take FOUR years of hard work to accomplish your SAT score takes four HOURS to accomplish. A little studying and a few simple reminders can make your SAT/ACT score the most crucial and time effective strategy for getting into a good school.


I’m going to focus on the SAT because most students in California value the SAT over the ACT, but just know that some students perform better on the SAT OR the ACT so make sure you take both before you apply to college.

Because SATs matter so much to college admission I think it is foolish to wait until your senior year to take the SAT. Let’s say you worked your donkey off 9th-11th grade, taking a ton of APs, and then you take the SAT and BOMB it. Now you are going to have a very difficult time getting into the school of your choice and you are going to have to start scrambling. I say you should take it as early as possible so you know where you stand and what you need to work on. In fact I’d take it at the end of sophomore year. Here would be my SAT plan.

10th grade: End of 10th grade take the SAT. Get a baseline score that will help you decide on a curricular path and how much studying you will need to do before taking the SAT for a second time. INSIDER INFO: If you want to maximize your studying for your next test you MUST pay the extra 18$ for the SAT Question-and-Answer Service* This service provides the test questions from the specified test you took, the correct answers, scoring instructions and a form you can use to order a copy of your answer sheet. This is CRUCIAL so instead of studying for the entire test you can focus on the exact type of questions you got wrong.

During the summer between 10th and 11th grade buy and go through one of these three books. These books are also recommended any time you are studying for the exam and you don’t have enough money to take a prep class.


Ten Real SATs: this is the only study book that includes REAL SATs from the college board. Take a few or all ten exams, grade them by yourself and see what type of questions you need to focus on when you study.


The Princeton Guide: I used this when I used to teach SAT prep classes. It’s a good study guide and they have a few cool tricks and tips that work.


Up Your Score: this is the shortest SAT study guide and the smallest in size. That means you might actually carry it around with you. It is written by four students who earned a perfect score and has a writing style that is very student friendly.

INSIDER TIP (2): When you sign-up for your College Board account it has a box that allows you to sign up to get an email of the SAT question of the day. I had a student who said that this is all he did for a year after taking the test and he was able to raise his score by 300 points without a prep course. The secret is that they not only give you a question and an answer, but they give you a detailed rationale for the answer. This rationale gives you an inside view of the test makers’ mind-set.  You can also get the question of the day from the College Board website AND you can get this as an App for your phone.

11th grade: Take your PSAT. I don’t know why schools push students to take the PSAT during their 9th and 10th grade years. If you want to prepare for the SAT then TAKE the SAT. The only year you want to take the PSAT is your 11th grade year because that is the only year where based on the score you become eligible for a National Merit Scholarship. If you become eligible for  a National Merit Scholarships, then some schools will start contacting you as if you are an elite athlete- that’s a good thing. If you have been studying, then go ahead and take your SAT for the 2nd time at the end of your junior year or take the ACT for the 1st time. The ACT is based on accumulated subject matter learned in high school more than the SAT so you want to take it as late as possible.

Summer between your 11th and 12th grades: Take a class on the SAT if possible. They are expensive and you will have to decide if it’s worth it for your family. By now you should have an idea based on your earlier SAT scores and your grades if you should really even bother paying $1,000 for an SAT prep class. One option you could do is convince your local HS to offer SAT prep courses. When I taught at Mayfair HS we offered SAT prep classes on Saturdays paid for by the Adult School. We kept the class to under 25 students charging each student around 20$ for the class.

I’ve had students who took the SAT without ever writing a practice essay. You must write some practice SAT  essays. After you have written a few take them to a tutor, a teacher or a friend along with the SAT scoring guide for the writing section and ask them where you can improve. You can really improve your score by focusing on the writing section. Students tend to ignore this section far too often. What’s nice about focusing on this section is that you are working on your writing skills and that comes in handy.

12th grade: Take the SAT/ACT for the last time early enough in the Fall that you will get back the scores in time to send to college.  One last note- some schools will allow you to Super-Score your SAT scores. That is you can take your best math score from one test and your best Critical Reading score from another test and combine them together to create a Super-Score. Here is a list of the colleges that allow you to Super Score your SAT.

Two last items regarding your SAT score. The California State University system requires all students to qualify for full admission by showing proficiency in both math and English. You can show proficiency by:

  • Earning at least a 3 on a qualifying Advanced Placement Exam
  • Scoring a passing score on the EAP exam
  • Scoring at least a 500 on the Critical Reading section and math section of the SAT
  • Passing the EPT test
  • Taking and passing an ECRW course while still in high school

Now I’m not a big fan of the CSU EAP/EPT program as you can read here, but one thing I have noticed is that far too many students have a 480 or 490 on their critical reading section of the SAT and fail to take the test a second time. With a little studying they could earn the passing score and save themselves quite a bit of time, money, and worry.

Lastly:  there is a blog called The Perfect Score project. It is a wonderfully cheeky expiation of one mother’s attempt at figuring out how to get a perfect sc ore on the SAT. I highly recommend exploring the blog and seeing what you can find.


A great letter of recommendation can by your gateway to a better future.


The difference between a good letter of recommendation and a great letter of recommendation is:   Great letters of recommendation are started the moment you step into a classroom. On the second week of class I share a few sample letters of recommendation with my students.

It’s not easy to write these letters. If I don’t know you well it’s going to be even more difficult. You MUST get to know a few teachers well enough for them to be able to write a great letter of recommendation. I give a challenge to my students. Write a letter of recommendation about yourself based on what we did in class this year- it’s tough to do. This is why it’s so important to be memorable and to provide opportunities to allow your students to be memorable.  I can guarantee you that my students who took the Re:Framed Blogging experience to heart will have no problem showing a teacher what they can include in a well-written letter of recommendation.

INSIDER TIP (3): When you ask a teacher for a letter of recommendation please do the following:

  • Put the request in a brightly colored folder so it’s easy to find on their desk
  • Give them enough time to get it done.
  • Send an email with your full name and the words college recommendation in the subject line along with the first due date- in the email please list the schools you need letters for with any necessary links needed and the due dates next to each one so if I can’t find the folder I can search for the email.
  • Include a brag sheet of accomplishments to make it easier to fill out the letter you can include this in the folder and email.
  • Send them a simple reminder a week before they are due
  • When they are done send them a simple thank you note, no gift necessary.

One project/assignment that we started at FVHS that I’m really proud of is our college portfolio project. Students create a portfolio at the end of their junior year. You can read more about it here, but what I love about the project is:

  • It shows students areas that need attention and growth
  • It provides an almost year-book like culmination to their high school experience and is a neat memento.
  • Some students apply to private universities that require a personal interview, having these portfolios with you makes this process  less stressful for students.


HACK ONE: Every school needs something. If you can provide a solution to that need then you are more likely to be accepted to that school. Here are few example of what a college might need. Instead of joining five different clubs see if you can do one of the following.

  • Apply to an unusual major: every school has an Economics, Philosophy, Art etc… some schools even offer specialized programs such as Equine studies  and Viticulture and Enology .  Can you be the student who keeps that program afloat?
  • Play a college level sport: too many parents try and develop a scholarship-level athlete, what really works is that if your son/daughter can play a sport at the collegiate level it can help them get in the door. Can your son make the Georgetown Football team?   Can your daughter compete at UCLA in gymnastics?  Those programs are tickets to admission.
  • Can you pay full price for college? Can you afford out-of-state tuition? If you can you will be more likely to gain admission: colleges need money.
  • Every school has a marching band, a theater program, a newspaper, a radio station, an ASB: can your son/daughter fulfill their needs for those programs. The big takeaway in this section is WHAT CAN YOU DO THAT THEY NEED?


Don’t just PINE for admission to Standford: do something about it- can you act like a tree? 

HACK TWO: Read this article on Study Hacks website about how you can impress a college with less than impressive grades or SAT scores: How to Get Into Stanford with B’s on Your Transcript: Failed Simulations & the Surprising Psychology of Impressiveness

I mean it’s one thing to escape for a German prison of war camp and it’s another thing to try and break out ALL the prisoners at ONCE. Do something that seems beyond the scope of most people.



There is nothing wrong with going to a Junior College before transferring to a four-year school. I did it and it saved me a ton of money and gave me the time and flexibility to find my passion.  There are some pros and cons to the experience- I’ll start with the negative first.


  • If you pick a JC near your home and show up on the first day surrounded by your former HS classmates you will feel like you never left HS. Depending on who you are this can be disappointed at the least.
  • JCs do not have the resources that a four-year university has. They don’t have the same libraries, facilities, access to internships, notable researchers etc…
  • When you do go to transfer it will take you at least a quarter to get used to your new school. Everyone else in your upper-division classes will know the ins and outs of the school.
  • You won’t have as many friends and won’t have the same connection with your classmates who have been there all four years.
  • About four weeks into class half of the students will have dropped the class. Student motivation can be low at a JC and that low motivation can be contagious, trust me I know.


  • Professors who like to TEACH often find a home at a JC- there is no pressure to do research or constantly publish so they can just teach. That is not to say that there are not published teachers at a JC. My photo teacher Professor John Upton at OCC wrote the photography book that every university used in Photo 101 and Professor Dennis Kelley is pretty famous in his own right, heck I took two classes with the amazing Arthur Taussig and spend a summer with him in the photo developing lab hallways watching Akira Kurosawa films on a TV and VCR that he would wheel in on a cart- that was an awesome summer.
  • It’s cheaper so there is less pressure when you make a mistake and need to drop a class or change a major.
  • You won’t get stuck with a TA/Grad student teaching your class or running the discussion.
  • Most JCs have a community college honors program. With just a 3.1 (your mileage may vary depending on the college) High School GPA and a letter of recommendation you can join their honors program. Many honors programs have a pathway to get you right into a competitive four-year university. Take advantage of this.
  • How about getting the experience of living away from home WITHOUT the cost of a four-year. I’ve had friends, family, and students move away from home and attend a JC in the city of their future four-year university. What a great experience without the burden of a $10,000+ tuition charge.

I’ll add more when I think of it and hopefully you will “escape” high school and end up in a better place. (Unless your high school or high school teachers are amazing in which case I hope your life continues to be awesome.)


Enjoy the journey- make each moment special

Stay tuned: in a few days I drop another blog post on what I think of “college-readiness”



  1. Fantastic post, David. My wife and I have recently seen several former students bashing their HS education in social media by claiming they didn’t feel prepared for college. While educators can certainly take some of the blame, I think a message that runs throughout your post is that students need to do a lot of the work *on their own* to prepare for the SAT/ACT, improve their writing skills, etc. I often wonder if some of my students think that by just showing up and putting in their time, they’ve done their part to get ready for college. They’re just going through the motions and then they get frustrated when so much more is expected of them in college. I look forward to sharing this post with them. Maybe it will help them realize how much of their future success will be dependent on their own ambition.

  2. What a wonderful, detailed perspective on a process so important to our students! And it’s still timely two years later. Thanks, David!

    Ironically, many of our UHS (Irvine, CA) students come back grateful for how prepared they DO feel for college. However, the price is sometimes undue stress and intense competition at a younger age. We are actively working on ways to ease that stress while continuing to provide true “college prep,” especially for elite colleges. Only a student and his/her family can determine what is the best balance for that student. But clearly, the more info, the better!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: