Let’s turn now to a very different case study.

Debbie was an average happy-go-lucky teenager at La Cañada High School. She was not particularly academically inclined and didn’t really like school; she was much more enthusiastic about surfing the Internet and texting with her friends. To no surprise, her high school transcript wasn’t in the best shape.

Many readers will know a student like Debbie.

Whether for lack of motivation or academic aptitude, she found herself with some poor grades at the end of her sophomore year when I first met her. At that point, Debbie was just hoping to get into a good UC. My job was to help her maximize her chances of getting into a UC like Irvine, Davis, or Santa Barbara.

This is what Debbie’s sophomore year transcript looked like:



Fall Semester

Spring Semester

Honors Algebra 2/Trigonometry






Spanish 2






World History









Debbie’s unweighted GPA was a 2.93. Currently, a weighted GPA of 3.5 is only good enough to get into UC Santa Cruz and UC Riverside—and a 3.0 is the minimum needed to apply.

Let’s first calculate Debbie’s weighted GPA.

Remember that different colleges have different ways of calculating GPA, and that the UCs—unlike private colleges—are very open about the details. We know exactly how the UCs weight GPA and exactly what the GPA cut-off is (3.0, weighted, for California residents). In particular, we know that:


GPA is calculated using only grades achieved in the “a-g” UC-mandated subjects.

A maximum of eight AP or UC-approved honors courses are weighted.
Grades do not come in pluses or minuses. For example, a B+ and a B– both count as a B.

Now let’s apply this information to Debbie’s transcript.

Debbie took one advanced course in 10th grade—Honors Algebra 2/Trigonometry—and received a creditable B+. However, the UCs do not award honor or AP credit for Honors Algebra 2/Trigonometry at La Cañada High. (Students can check whether specific courses at their high school receive the weighting credit by looking up their high schools on the UC website.)

As a result, Debbie might as well have taken a regular class and received an A. Additionally, Debbie received Cs in English and World History, putting her cumulative sophomore-year GPA at under 3.0. In other words, as a sophomore, Debbie did not meet the minimum requirement for UC eligibility.

For Debbie, everything rested on her junior-year course selection and GPA.

Schoolwork had to take top priority, even at the expense of developing her extracurricular profile. Unless Debbie raised her GPA, she wouldn’t even have the option of applying to a UC. So for Debbie, it was very important for her to pick junior year courses that would maximize her chances of academic success.

Students like Debbie are often better served by taking regular classes than by struggling through APs. Although we encourage students to take the most rigorous courses they can handle, a C doesn’t count as “handling” a course.

Bluntly, students should not take an AP or honors class at the expense of getting a C! With this in mind, here is the course schedule we recommended for Debbie’s junior year:

  • Precalculus (regular or honors)
  • Physics (regular)
  • U.S. History (regular)
  • English (regular)
  • Spanish 3 (regular)
  • And an elective: Drama (or some other elective that would satisfy the “Visual and Performing Arts” requirement).

With the possible exception of math, we encouraged Debbie to stick with regular classes, making sure she got As and Bs in all her classes.

  • Debbie could have elected to take either regular or honors Precalculus (she would receive an honors credit for the advanced class), because her comparatively strong performance in math her sophomore year suggested she was capable of succeeding on the honors math track.

However, we recommended that Debbie not take honors-level options in her humanities classes, since she evidently had weaknesses in those areas and coursework would only get harder her junior year. Finally, we recommended that Debbie take an elective class, such as drama, that would enable her to do something she enjoyed while earning a relatively easy A.

  • Now the recommendations above were targeted at a very specific student. We counseled Debbie on the assumption that the general level of motivation and academic achievement she had demonstrated so far was indicative of what was to come.

If Debbie was willing and eager to make some drastic change in attitude or in her approach to her studies, our counsel could have been different.

This is where parents play a vital role in the college planning process.

Parental involvement is a not-often-discussed but crucial part of the college admissions process. That is why in the FLEX college counseling program, we meet with the entire family whenever possible in order to gain a comprehensive assessment of each student and his or her support system.

Let’s say that Debbie, faced with the sobering reality of her academic prospects, decided that she would put in a tremendous effort her upcoming junior year. Let’s further say that Debbie’s parents, with a realistic assessment of Debbie’s character and aptitude, trusted Debbie to really see this change of heart through.

In this case, we might have recommended that Debbie take a challenging course such as AP Statistics to give her academic record a real jolt. However, such a move would have been obviously risky: if it turned out that she was actually unable or unwilling to do the work necessary to succeed in AP Statistics, she could have forfeited any chance of getting into a UC.

Now as a college counselor, I certainly don’t want to tell other parents how to do their job.

  • First of all, I know it is all too easy for a third party to make recommendations. It’s the students and parents who have to do all the hard work!
  • And second of all, as a parent myself, I don’t think other people should tell me how to be a parent! Nevertheless, parental involvement can seriously affect a student’s academic success, and I know from experience that even well-meaning and genuinely concerned parents can still have serious blind spots.

Take Debbie, for example.

Debbie’s parents granted Debbie complete freedom to surf the Internet and rack up minutes on her cell phone. It’s a parent’s job to monitor the use of such technology—and to enforce a blackout when necessary.

Contrary to what teenagers would have parents believe, students do not need constant access to the Internet to get their schoolwork done.

For Debbie to have a realistic shot at securing UC eligibility, her parents needed to be more involved. They needed to have an accurate understanding about their child’s personality and her capacities, both intellectually and temperamentally. And they needed to be willing to force her to eliminate temptations and distraction.

Debbie and her family needed to make some cold and unemotional decisions in light of her sophomore-year record. The good news, though, was that Debbie still had the time to decisively alter her college prospects. Everything depended on her performance her junior year.

As it turned out, Debbie was able to find the necessary focus her junior year. She followed our advice regarding her junior-year course selection and focused all her attention on her school grades, dropping her flute lessons and scaling back some of her commitments to her church youth group praise team.

With the extra time—and with a lot more parental vigilance—she was able to bring her grades up and eventually secured admission to UC Irvine, UC Davis and Boston University.

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