Admission to well-respected colleges has become more and more competitive in recent years. College counseling starts for most students in 9th grade, with four-year plans packed with prerequisites that aim to pave the way to being accepted to a good university. Applying to more than one school and getting good grades are the most obvious ways to maximize your chance of getting into college; however, with the number of applicants with high GPA’s applying for the same schools, you’ll need other ways to stand out from the crowd.
Take Honors and AP Classes
Challenge yourself by taking Advanced Placement and honors classes, or enroll in summer classes at a local university. Many colleges will accept credit from AP tests and from college classes taken concurrently with high school classes, but even if the school of your choice doesn’t accept the credits, they will still value that you challenged yourself and took difficult subjects, as long as you get decent grades. Competitive universities want to see a student who can handle college work and who will go above and beyond the minimum requirements. Getting straight A’s in only easy subjects won’t impress colleges; however, failing honors classes in subjects that are too hard for you won’t look good, either. Working hard and getting good grades in advanced courses looks the best on your transcript, so choose which advanced classes you take wisely based on your abilities and interests.
Schools like to see a candidate with a caring and generous spirit, who gives her time to worthy, charitable causes. Helping the disabled, working in a soup kitchen to feed the hungry, taking care of abandoned animals or helping clean up the environment are just a few volunteer opportunities that will help you maximize your chances of getting into college. Volunteering speaks well to a student’s character -- it also can be very fun and instill a sense of pride and self-worth that comes with helping others. Get involved early and be true to yourself. Waiting until your senior year of high school to volunteer looks like you’re just doing it to impress, rather than to grow from the experience.
Be Well Rounded
Get involved early in your high school career with clubs and extracurricular activities, such as sports, art or music. Learning a musical instrument and playing in the school band shows your cooperative spirit. Sticking with a sport shows you’re willing to work hard and work as a team toward a common goal. High school robotics clubs, math clubs or French clubs are just a few examples of groups that could show off your academic interests.
Take the SAT Early
If you’re an advanced math student, consider taking the SAT in 10th grade. By taking the SAT early, you can have the chance to take it again the following year, having a better idea of what is on the test. Most schools will look at your best score, so you have nothing to lose by taking it more than one year. SAT scores are very important in getting into a good college. Study hard and make sure you’re prepared. The PSAT, offered in 10th grade, can also prepare you for the SAT and enable you to quality for a National Merit Scholarship, if you perform exceptionally well on the test.
Take the ACT and SAT
Take both the SAT and the ACT. Many colleges accept the ACT or the SAT. By taking both tests, you can use the higher score. While both tests are similar in content, the ACT questions are a bit more straightforward. The ACT also has a science section -- whereas the SAT does not. The SAT has a stronger vocabulary section, so if you are good with language, you might be more suited for the SAT.
If your college application is due January 1st, get it in before the deadline. College admissions officers won’t have much sympathy for students who wait until the last minute to apply, or miss deadlines.
Focus on the Essay
Write a stellar essay. Get personal in your essay, be detailed and lay out your value to the admissions officials. Write about what makes you stand out from other applicants and why you would be a good fit for the university you are applying to. College admissions officers can tell if you’re sending out a generic essay that isn’t tailored to their school, so do your research and be specific when talking about why you want to go to this particular school. Put your personality on the page and write your own ticket in.
Interview with the Admissions Officer
Set up an interview and introduce yourself. Meet with the school’s admissions officer, putting your best foot forward. Be polite and make a warm, personal connection with admissions staff without going over the top. Use your time in the interview wisely. Discover what the school is looking for in their candidates and use that information on your application and essay. Meet with alumni and find out their suggestions for applying.
- The New York Times: College Hunt Starts Earlier at New Breed of Schools
- California Career Center: Grade 9 College Planning Checklist
- California Career Center: Grade 10 College Planning Checklist
- California Career Center: Grade 11 College Planning Checklist
- California Career Center: Grade 12 College Planning Checklist
- Jobs for the Future: Taking College Courses in High School
Bonnie Crowe is a mother of two teenagers; a teacher and author of children's books, curriculum and articles on English grammar, literature, technology, art, parenting and career guides for high schoolers. She's a former director of AOL Parenting, a member of SCBWI, and a graduate from the University of California,Berkeley.