Whether you have a single dream school in mind, are planning to apply to all the top colleges, or just want to stay close to home, the college admissions process can seem like a minefield to prospective students. But in addition to having a strong grasp on the timeline and application requirements, there are also some overall factors to keep in mind during your high school experience that will maximize your chances of success at selective colleges.
Below are twenty things to keep in mind throughout high school to ensure that you’ll ace the college admissions process when it arrives:
The most important thing you can do in the college application process is figure out what you want. What kind of school will make you happy? What do you want to study? What has been most meaningful about high school? Who are you, and who do you want to become?
You’ll be answering these questions in multiple ways during the application process, so understanding where you’ve been and where you see yourself going will be imperative to putting together an outstanding, compelling application narrative.
Applying to college all on your own is exhausting. There’s so much to remember, including the various moving parts of the application itself (from school-specific essays to letters of recommendation from teachers), the deadlines, interviews, visits, and more. Our advice? Get support from the people around you in whatever way you can.
Visit schools with your parents. Ask family friends about different schools they attended to learn more about them. Practice interviewing and review your essays with a trusted friend or parent. This process is almost possible to do alone, so don’t be afraid to seek help!
The best thing you can do for your college application is to work hard in school. After all, while college can be a lot of things altogether, it’s primarily a place to continue your education. That means you need to get good grades in high school!
The admissions officers who read your applications will want to see that you’re a strong student who can take advantage of the resources they offer. That means they want to see a strong high school GPA and excellent academic performance. Some may even ask for a graded paper.
For top schools, getting good grades isn’t enough if you’re not taking on challenging coursework. Most selective schools these days want to see a mix of honors and Advanced Placement classes to show that you’re ready for college-level work. And, in addition to the AP class, they also want to see high scores on the AP exams.
Furthermore, nothing shows you’re ready for college classes more than taking a college class! Many schools offer summer classes that are open to high school students hoping to earn real college credit. Taking a for-credit class in your future major can add a lot to your application.
We’ve written on this more at length here, but it’s also crucial to remember that applying to college doesn’t take place just during your senior year. Starting to research and visit schools during your junior year is important, as it will ensure you have enough time.
In reality, college admissions officers look at your entire high school career. That isn’t to say you need to be a perfectly groomed applicant on the first day of freshman year, but the choices you make along the way will ultimately make their way into your application.
Some students get fixated one a small handful of dream colleges (Harvard, Yale), while others anxiously apply to twenty or more schools. Neither of these is a good or strategic approach. Rather, it’s important that you create a balanced college list.
It’s most important to have a range of selectivity in your list. Make sure that in addition to your reach schools (where you may be a below-average applicant in your grades, scores, and overall profile), you have target and safety schools too, places where the acceptance rates are more forgiving and your chances of admission are thus higher.
No college wants to be your back-up plan. Just as you don’t want to be rejected by them, they don’t want to be rejected by you! Therefore, most colleges today track what we might call “demonstrated interest”: a measure of how interested they think a student is in them.
While not all schools track prospective students’ perceived interest, it’s a good idea to demonstrate your interest at all the schools on your college list, not just your reach schools. That means attending information sessions, going on tours, following a school on social media, and emailing the admissions counselors assigned to your area.
Like it or not, standardized test scores are a crucial part of your application at most schools. Whether you take the SAT or ACT, it’s important that you get a good score that you can submit along with the rest of your college application.
Fortunately, your SAT score isn’t handed down from on high; it’s something you can improve with study and preparation. Whether you take practice tests on your own, engage in formal test prep with a tutor or class, and/or take the formal exam multiple times during your junior year (or before), make sure you eventually have strong test scores.
We all have twenty-four hours in a day, and none of us have the power to stop or slow time. Thus, there is a limit to how much you can add to your college resume. Some students overreach, trying to get involved in everything. Unfortunately, this isn’t a good use of their time.
Rather, it’s important to understand that your time and bandwidth are limited and that colleges will be more impressed by deep dedication to a few passions rather than having a toe in a hundred different things. It’s good to explore early on, but by junior year, you should know which clubs and activities deserve your time and which ones don’t.
Another reason not to take on too many extracurricular activities and instead develop a deep interest in one or two is the greater likelihood that you’ll achieve leadership positions in these spaces. Colleges love leadership; they want to admit students who can handle responsibility.
Of course, being president of your class or editor-in-chief of the school newspaper are ideal leadership positions, but you can showcase your leadership in other ways, too. Taking on responsibilities in your religious or cultural community, or through service, are also ways to highlight your leadership abilities.
The importance of community service in your overall college application profile cannot be overstated. Selective colleges use prospective students’ involvement in their communities, particularly with people different than them, to evaluate their maturity and empathy.
There’s no right or wrong way to serve your community; maybe you want to do something closely related to your interests, or maybe you just set aside time to help others in whatever way you can. Regardless of how you do it, serving your community is something you should commit to doing at least once a month, and more if you can.
The school year is busy. You’ve got classes, homework, sports, extracurricular activities, and more. There often isn’t time for expanding your profile for your college applications. That’s where summer vacation comes in: a largely unstructured block of time.
Successful applicants to top colleges use their summer vacations to fill in the gaps on their resume. From taking classes for college credit to expanding your service work to participating in a research internship, summer can be the ideal time to boost your profile.
Right around now, you may be thinking: how do I keep track of all this stuff? How do I know what to prioritize and when? Where do I fit in researching schools with founding a club and serving my community and getting good grades in hard classes?
While some college counselors only make a list or edit your essays, you’ll want someone who can really help with the whole process, from helping you develop your story to managing deadlines to finding schools that are truly the right fit for you.
These days, most colleges ask applicants to write at least one, and often more, application essays. Nearly all schools ask for a personal statement, often known as the Common App Essay. This is the part where you get to tell your story to admissions counselors. And, on top of that general college essay, many selective schools now also ask applicants to write supplemental essays, ones unique to their school.
In these supplemental essays, admissions officers want to know how prospective students will fit into their student body. What will they study? What clubs will they join? Why this school? Having strong supplemental essays will help colleges see you as one of them.
As you get into your senior year, make sure you don’t slack! Even if you apply early decision or early action in November, colleges will still contact your guidance counselor to ask for your mid-term grades. So, don’t assume that they won’t know if you’re challenging yourself and maintaining your GPA during the fall of your senior year!
Overall, the closer your grades are to your application, the more colleges care. That means junior year is the most important overall year, but senior fall is even more important. Ultimately, the student you are at the end of high school is who they’re admitting.
In addition to your application essays, colleges lean heavily on your letters of recommendation to learn what kind of student and person you are. In general, you’ll want to get two teachers to write for you, and your school counselor will submit a letter as well.
When it comes to a letter of recommendation, remember to (a) ask early, (b) ask in person, and (c) ask teachers who know you well. They don’t have to be the teachers in whose classes you got the best grade. A personal, enthusiastic letter is always preferable.
This sounds obvious, but you would be shocked at how many essays, resumes, and additional information sections get to colleges with typos, misspellings, and grammar errors. While a small error isn’t going to sink your application, a lot of them will reflect badly on you.
Editing, revising, and proofreading take time. Throughout this process, make sure you’re not procrastinating. Waiting to the last minute increases your likelihood of making mistakes.
Perhaps you’ve heard by now that there’s an advantage to applying early decision. While there are certain reasons not to do so—maybe your dream college doesn’t offer ED or you need more of the school year to finish your applications—it’s still something to consider thoughtfully. Ultimately, you have to choose just one school, so why not do it in November instead of in April?
It’s also advisable to apply early action to as many places as you can. These applications are not binding like early decision, but applying early action can still help signal your strong interest, get the application off your desk, and let you know in December instead of March.
If you apply early and are deferred or regular and placed on a waitlist, don’t despair! The school is absolutely still interested in you; otherwise, they would have rejected you outright. What you need to do now is signal to them that you’re still interested in them, too.
A deferral or waitlist letter doesn’t need to be long or overwrought. Instead, write a short note to your designated admissions counselor highlighting any updates to your application and expressing your continued interest in attending the university.
Finally, once all your admissions decisions are in, take a moment to consider your acceptances. You may have different financial aid packages or merit scholarship offers; you may have gotten into honors programs or some other perk. Take a deep breath and remember: now you’re the one who gets to decide! You have all the power!
Carefully weigh your options: academic, professional, financial, logistical. Visit schools’ admitted students’ days and talk to current students about their experiences. Don’t rush this decision; it’s one of the most important ones you’ll make.
As you surely know by now, selective colleges don’t just care about your grades and your SAT scores. They want to know about your whole profile: who you are and what’s important to you. They want to see you as a college student, and more specifically, one of their college students. What will you bring to campus? What will you do afterward?
Keeping these tips in mind will ensure that you both put together a strong application and—equally importantly—don’t get overwhelmed in the process.
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