While there is no secret formula to getting accepted into the college of your dreams, there are some general guidelines that can help you be well prepared for college admissions. Heres some pointers from an experienced career advisor:
1. Start planning early:
During your middle school years, particularly if math is one of your strengths, be sure to follow the most challenging mathematics path that your middle school offers. Math is one of the areas where students are often given an early opportunity to get ahead. Although not all middle schools offer such an opportunity, if yours does, then take advantage of it. Regardless of your strengths, every student should take the most challenging path you can handle and still obtain good grades and, most importantly, actually learn the material well.
Make an appointment with your high school guidance or college counselor as early as possible in order to develop a solid four-year plan based on the curriculum that your high school offers. If possible, meet with the counselor during the spring or summer before you start high school, otherwise make this appointment as soon as possible during the first week of school, and definitely before the deadline for class changes. Proactively plan out your next four years so you are certain to cover the courses that colleges will expect you to have taken. For example, many selective colleges want to see seniors taking calculus during their senior year. In order to make this happen, you need to be sure you’ve taken the requisite courses to be on track, which usually means taking Geometry your freshman year (with Algebra 1 having been completed in the 8th grade, or visa versa depending on your particular school district). In addition, many colleges like to see four years of a foreign language, which means you want to be sure you start early. If your school has minimal academic options, don’t despair: colleges are well aware that not every school has the same resources to offer their students. Admissions officers will evaluate you only in light of what your individual opportunities were at your high school, so become familiar early on with what those options are, and follow whichever college-prep pathway that is available to you.
2. Maintain a strong curriculum, but do it thoughtfully:
While grades are typically the single biggest factor in admissions decisions, strength of curriculum is an ever-closer second. Most admissions officers assign considerable weight to degree of challenge. Evidence has shown them that high schoolers who take more demanding classes are more likely to succeed in college, so this is why they look at what courses you elect to take and how you fare in those classes. Planning your course load becomes a balancing act, though – you certainly don’t want to take four AP courses and do poorly in them. You want to take the most rigorous courses you’re eligible for—without sacrificing grades, your health or social life, because these are also essential for your overall productivity in the long run. As you reach the 11th and 12th grades in particular, it’s typically best not to take every single AP or Honors course offered unless you have a strong interest in the material and feel confident you can do well. Talk it over in depth with your counselor and your parents, and decide on a path you can handle with success.
3. Find your extracurricular focus and stick with it:
One of the most prevalent misconceptions among parents is that colleges want to see students who manage a heavy and wide load of extracurricular activities, so they start early, over scheduling their children with soccer practices, piano lessons, dance lessons, karate, 4H, etc., and this carries over into high school when the student ends up burning the candle at both ends: playing every sport possible, involved in leadership and joining 8 different school clubs — but not doing any of it very deeply or with any impact. The reality is that colleges are looking to build well-rounded student bodies that are composed of individual specialists. What this means is that it’s much better to find one or a very select few interests or passions, and focus on this/these over time – dive deeply, get involved, show commitment. It’s much more appealing to colleges to see a student involved in even one activity wholeheartedly over a long period of time than to see a student superficially involved in a wide range of activities. It’s logical, really: this shows a student’s ability to maintain focus and commitment over a long haul, which is much more indicative of the skills necessary to make it successfully through college. This also lets the college craft a very diverse student body of interesting people of varying passions, which then creates a more stimulating environment within which to learn.
When planning for your four years of high school, keep these principles in mind and you should be well-prepared: plan early and get on the college prep track early; balance the course load you do take in order to get as high a grade as you can in each course (as well as learn deeply in the courses you take on, of course); and focus on one or a very select few extracurricular activities that you actually enjoy and work hard over time to make an impact and show your commitment.
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Contributor: This article was written by Colleen Heidenreich, J.D. A Former Independent College Counselor