High school students can get into the college of their dreams. All it takes is gumption, planning and guidance. Students often want to know what type of student colleges are seeking. The reality is there is no one type. Colleges want a range of students to create a diverse campus community. That is why students need to present themselves as a whole, showing off their unique mix of qualities in the best light possible.
Choose the right classes. Take challenging classes, including AP and IB, when possible. Students need to challenge themselves but not to the extent they are hurting themselves grade-wise. Students must also meet all high school course requirements for their chosen college and statewide graduation requirements to earn a diploma.
Get to know the college counselor. High school counselors can help students with big picture planning, including academic advising, college planning and personal counseling. Counselors also are needed for the all important college application letters of recommendation. Make an appointment to see a school counselor at least once each year, including freshman year. The goal is to build a rapport with the high school counselor that lasts until students’ graduate. During the meeting, talk about interests and goals. The more the school counselor knows about a student the more she can help. Many public school students do not know their adviser. Taking a proactive approach will make a student stand out.
Keep grades up. Make a commitment to work hard for good grades. Students who are falling behind should get help — before they fall too far behind. Grades count and schools look for students who have challenged themselves and expressed a passion for learning. There is a classic question. Is it better to get an A in a regular class or a B in an AP class? The real answer is it’s best to get an A in an AP class. For the majority of students, good grades are entirely necessary to get into a good school. Schools are looking for a positive pattern. In the best-case scenario, a student maintains good grades throughout high school. Though, if the grades started off low and improved, colleges give points for this. If grades are too low or show a steady decline, then a student is in real trouble. Spending a night studying while friends go out may not be exciting, but the path to college needs to be looked at through a long-term lens. Plus, teachers are where college recommendation letters come from so you want to impress them.
Take standardized tests early. At most highly selective colleges, SAT or ACT tests are very important. The schools are looking to see if test score are consistent with – or exceed – a student’s high school performance. No student knows how high her score can go until the test results come in. But, if a student waits too long and does not get a desired score, there won’t be enough time to retake it. Many unexpected circumstances can affect test scores on any given day. Taking the test early also will allow time to take a test prep course if necessary. Students also must make sure to schedule test days for the SAT Subject Tests. Most students take Subject Tests toward the end of junior year or at the beginning of senior year. The best time to take the tests is as soon as possible after completing the course in the subject.
Engage in the right mix of extracurricular activities. Admissions officers are looking for commitment and impact in a student’s activities. It is better to be highly involved in one to three activities and/or sports over a number of years than less involved in many activities. Schools are looking for a student to demonstrate the willingness to stick with something and make the most of it. Schools are not so interested in hearing about passions. They want to see them proven! Once a student finds the activities he wants to focus on, the next step is to work on becoming a leader or to demonstrate initiative.
Take the college application seriously. Students need to make sure they put time and effort into every part of the college application, from the essay to the resume. The college essay gives admissions officers the opportunity to know who a student is and how that student might contribute to the college campus. It also gives the admissions team a chance to learn something about a student that they won’t find elsewhere in the application. Extracurricular activities should be carefully written so a student can best highlight all of his accomplishments and experience. The best recommendations come from individuals who really know the student. They should offer detailed information and/or personal stories about the applicant that back up the information on the application.
Do the research. Know what the choices are when it comes to colleges. This way any coulda, shoulda, woulda regrets can be avoided. Research could be as simple as visiting a school’s website. Students also should try to attend college fairs, meet with admissions experts when they visit and go on college visits.
Maximize summer opportunities. High school students who want to stand out on their college applications should consider the summer an ideal time to add some resume gold. Good choices include attending a summer enrichment program, taking a summer job or internship, participating in volunteer work, taking virtual classes, attending a dual enrollment program or taking classes at a local college.
Develop any special talents or abilities. Students who do something extraordinarily well do gain an edge in the college admissions process. A special talent or ability can be anything, including performing or visual arts, athletics, science, math, speech and debate or writing. Colleges will look for evidence of a student’s accomplishments through recognitions (awards, scholarships). They may also look for significant contributions that show the student’s depth of commitment and follow-through (newspaper articles).
Get help as needed. Students who are having trouble with academics or other issues or need college guidance should seek help. It is not hard to ask, though some students do find it difficult. Adults who are in a position to help may not know a student is struggling if no help is requested. Parents, teachers, expert independent college advisers, like those at International College Counselors, can all help the process.
Make smart decisions. Say no to alcohol, drugs and embarrassing usage of social media. Don’t text and drive or drive under the influence of drugs or alcohol. One dumb mistake can ruin a student’s prospects.
Banish the self-doubt. Fear of failure and doubting personal abilities only hold students back from achieving what they want to achieve. Just say no to these thoughts and others like them.
Admissions directors seek different things. Some colleges look for students who are well-rounded, with a wide assortment of extracurricular activities, while others give preference to those who have displayed a sustained passion for something. The best advice: be the best you you can be.
Mandee Heller Adler is CEO of International College Counselors and author of From Public School to the Ivy League: How to get into a top school without top dollar resources.