You've got a blistering GPA, your SAT scores are off the charts, you're captain of your sports team and you still find time to volunteer. But is it enough to grant you admittance to your dream school? While there's no sure-fire recipe to getting into the country's coveted universities, there are things you can do to make yourself an attractive candidate in the eyes of admissions directors.

Work closely with your high-school guidance office. The counselors can help you get into the right classes, pick colleges and chart your course of action. They also write recommendations and communicate with colleges about applications. See also 149 Decide Which College Is Right for You and 152 Organize Your College Applications.

Hire a private college admissions counselor if you feel you need extra guidance. Applying to college is a lot of work with a bewildering number of options. An expert helps both students and parents sort through it all, something that over-extended highschool counselors may not have the time or resources to do. He or she will make qualified recommendations based your interests, grades and test scores. Contact the Independent Educational Consultants Association (educationalconsulting.org) to find one in your area. If you hire an adviser, be aware that colleges will still direct their questions to your high-school guidance office.

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Plan out your classes. Ask your guidance counselor to recommend required and elective courses, and the order in which you should take them. For instance, you may need to take geometry as a freshman if you want to advance to calculus by your senior year.

Attend summer school to get prerequisite classes if you didn't plan early enough. Admissions officers like students who work hard to catch up. See 280 Choose a Summer Study Program.

Take the most challenging course work you can, including advanced placement classes (for which you get college credits). Many admissions officers would rather see you tackle a harder class than settle for an easy one just to get a high grade, and they look for trends in grades, as well as class rank. At the same time, don't set yourself up for failure by signing up for too many tough classes.

Nail your PSATs, SATs and ACT exams. See 151 Ace the College Admissions Tests.

Explain yourself if you've scored low on the tests but have a high GPA. Ask your teachers to address the issue in their letters of recommendation. They should stress that your grades are well deserved, and you should do the same in your admissions essay.

Get involved in extracurricular activities in your school and community. The number of activities isn't important--admissions committees look for depth rather than breadth.

Stay committed to your activities. Begin as a Cub Scout, for instance, and progress on to Eagle Scout. If you can, work your way up to a leadership role--become the editor of the school paper, head church projects or run for class office.

Develop a theme that runs through your high-school activities. For instance, if you love art, take painting classes, become a museum docent and volunteer to teach art at an elementary school. Refer to this theme in your application's essay.

Plan your summer with college in mind. It looks good to be active and constructive even when you're not in school. Find a camp or college class that fits in with your theme. If you have to pump gas over the summer, turn it into something creative-- help improve customer service, for example.

Get to know key people at the college you want to attend. Follow through with the college representative who comes to your high school, introduce yourself to a coach or professor and meet an admissions officer.

Tips

  • Talk to friends, family and alumni who have attended the school of your choice. Work these connections, and ask for recommendations. See 201 Make a Networking Plan.
  • Find out about scholarship opportunities. Packages are available in sports, music, the arts and other fields.
  • Keep up the good work in your senior year. College admissions officers don't want to see you slack off.
  • Let the admissions office know when you visit the campus, meet staff or talk to alumni. Some colleges track the number of contacts you make to determine how interested you are.
  • Be aware of the acceptance rates at your top choices. Schools with acceptance rates below 30 percent (for example, Amherst, Williams and Swarthmore colleges can drop below 25 percent) are reaches for anyone who does not have both very strong academics and very impressive achievements. Keep in mind, candidates turned down by top universities quickly take spots at their next choice.
  • A 4.0 GPA at one high school is not the same as a 4.0 at another. Colleges pay close attention to the quality of the student's high school and the challenging nature of that school's curriculum.
  • Some high schools have free peer-tutoring programs, or you can pay for a private tutor, a learning center or an online educational service.

Warnings

  • It's tempting to load yourself up with classes and activities, but the stress and fatigue can be counterproductive. Colleges want to see you excel--not spread yourself thin. If you don't know how to slow down, get professional counseling.

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