Passion and determination are highly valued in the admissions office. Academics matter a lot, but you'll need to find the right balance as you go through high school between hitting the books and pursuing activities outside the classroom that reflect who you are – and then figure out how to make that person shine through on your college applications.
Consultants and admissions counselors agree that students should start building their resumes in ninth grade, with an eye toward being able to fill an application with fascinating facts. "We are going through these applications quickly. Grab our attention and show us what you're passionate about," advises Jeffrey Schiffman, director of admissions at Tulane University.
Here are three top strategies that have worked for students.
• Take your studies seriously: Admissions officers care a lot about your academic performance, but grades don't tell them the whole story. They devote much of their time to scrutinizing the course choices students make.
Many students assume they should take every Advanced Placement course available. But getting an A in one or two AP courses that fit your talents is better than B's in a bunch of courses that don't.
"If a student is taking a number of APs, that's great – but not if they're struggling," cautions Susan Dileno, vice president for enrollment at Ohio Wesleyan University. "What we're really looking for is progression on particular topics. Do they excel in math? And if so, are they pushing the limits of what's offered at their school?"
Admissions officers view performance in the context of each student's goals, explains Andy Strickler, dean of admission and financial aid at Connecticut College. "A student with a stated desire in premed who's getting a B in AP bio is a red flag," he says. "But a self-described artist who happens to be taking AP bio, we'll look at that a little bit differently."
He adds that students who attend schools offering just a few AP courses aren't compared with those who have, say, 20 to choose from. Rather, they're judged based on how wisely they choose which advanced courses to take.
Sasha Voinov chose science courses his school didn't even offer. He studied at home through the Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School; wanting more challenge, he worked with guidance counselors to create a program allowing students to take classes at nearby colleges.
"On my applications, I highlighted the fact that I was passionate about science by going out of my way to take these advanced classes," says Voinov, who completed more than two years' worth of college-level biology, chemistry and math classes at the Community College of Allegheny County near his Pittsburgh home. After transferring from Duke University to the University of Pittsburgh, he is now a senior majoring in neuroscience.
• Show that you're a problem-solver: The pathways you take outside of the classroom can give a sense of your ability to solve problems and use your skills in real-world settings.
Even if you're not making money, you'll turn heads if you find an internship related to your field of interest or show initiative by starting a club or business or a public service in your community.
This is especially beneficial if you're interested in business, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications, a Wilton, Connecticut, admissions consulting firm. "You can even walk dogs," Klein Wassink suggests. "Have somebody work with you, have employees. That's possible in high school."
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• Highlight your uniqueness and depth: When listing your activities on applications, be sure to lead off with the most eye-catching and meaningful achievements.
"I'll get applications where the first one is National Honor Society, the second will be French club, the third will be an activity they did once, and the fourth one is that they're a world championship rodeo athlete," Schiffman says. "Why didn't they put the rodeo first?"
Also, he notes, "I do not need to see all 10." Indeed, it doesn't pay to fill out every available space with extracurriculars that aren't distinctive. Your aim is to reveal what your true passions are, not to be joining for the sake of joining.
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It's also valuable to show that there are other facets to your personality, notes college application coach Jessica Yeager. A 2008 Harvard University graduate with a master's in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Yeager works at an engineering consulting firm in Boston and counsels high school students on the side about getting into college.
When she was applying to college herself, she pointed to her initiative in public service as well as her intention to major in engineering. Sophomore year, she'd formed a club that, among other projects, started a recycling program at the school. She also partnered with a local organization for foster families to plan a two-day resource fair. It helped her case, she thinks, that she could paint "a larger picture of someone who wants to do something for the environment and for the world in general – to improve it."
One final, important tip: Show sincere interest in the schools you're applying to, including your safety schools. Attend information sessions, book a campus tour – perhaps even arranging for an overnight in the dorm – and spend time on each university's website.
Thanks to technology, some colleges have started tracking which applicants are interacting with them in a convincing way. "Colleges are far more aware of where students are going on our websites and who's opening our emails," says Ohio Wesleyan's Dileno. Even when you're obviously qualified, failing to show true interest can be a black mark.
This story is excerpted from the U.S. News "Best Colleges 2018" guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings