Build on your academic strengths. Schools are looking for students who have not only done well academically but who have also challenged themselves in other ways, as they are more likely to succeed in college-level courses. Reviewers also take into account the level of rigor available at a particular school.
The key is to plan ahead and start in eighth or ninth grade to build a foundation that will open doors to advanced coursework later on. For instance, being ready to get advanced algebra out of the way sophomore year puts you on track to take calculus before earning that high school diploma, which might set you up better should you apply to a program that requires it, such as engineering.
Get a handle on the tests. Of course, colleges have long relied on standardized tests to help them differentiate between students in a way that grades alone cannot. Increasingly, applicants are choosing to take both the SAT and the ACT.
Christoph Guttentag, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Duke University in North Carolina, suggests doing just that to determine which test better suits your test-taking style. You might opt to sit for your preferred test again, but twice should be the limit, he says.
Duke, for example, accepts scores for both tests, but check with your prospective schools on their policies and whether you should submit scores for both tests. At Duke, admissions officers consider scores of individual sections from both tests, but they’ll use the highest composite score in their admissions rubric.
And what about the optional SAT essay section? While many places don't require it, some do, and that may change year to year. Again, it's best to consult a school's individual policies.
More and more schools – including Bennington College in Vermont, Ohio Wesleyan University, Arizona State University—Tempe and, as of this summer, the University of Chicago – are going test-optional, meaning applicants can choose not to submit standardized-test scores for review in admissions decisions. When in doubt, check with the school's admissions office.
Students and parents should use caution when looking at "test-optional" Just because those colleges are not requiring (scores) from everyone doesn't mean 80 percent of them don't take them. Top colleges still use them and consider the scores a lead indicator for future performance.
Think outside your school's extracurriculars. While Santa Monica, California, native Brendan Terry’s interest in environmental and social justice issues was first sparked in middle school, he found most of the opportunities to nurture his activist spirit off campus.
Terry interned at an educational nonprofit as a summer camp counselor for local children from low-income families and Chinese exchange students, volunteered at a community health clinic, and served as the "educational ambassador" for the 5 Gyres Institute, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that focuses on reducing global plastic pollution, among other activities.
Now a junior majoring in chemistry at Pomona College in California, Terry is well aware of the impact of his community work on his college apps. "It was huge," he says. "Schools always brought it up."
Terry wrote about his activism in the majority of his essays, as well as the "activities" and "additional information" sections of the Common Application. His recommendations – one from a teacher and the other from one of the directors at 5 Gyres – reinforced his work as an activist.
No matter what your interests are, find ways to use them to make a contribution to your school or local community. Arianna Hilliard, a classmate of Maloney's at Oxbridge Academy who is now in her first year at Vassar College in New York, was vice president of a club at her school called Race Alliance in which members met weekly to discuss the topic of race in popular culture.
To be sure, some students are too busy with a part-time job or, say, babysitting younger siblings to devote themselves to even one season of sports, much less an activity or a cause. But employment and child care are responsibilities that you can learn from, too.
"Colleges look at extracurriculars in the context of a student's environment," says Craig Meister, Director of college counseling at Oxbridge Academy and founder of college consulting firm Admissions Intel. He urges his students to list those experiences on their apps. "It's a combination of what you can afford and what you're passionate about," he says.
Consider recommendations carefully. "Always give great consideration to the people you ask to write a recommendation," says Susan Schaurer, Associate Vice President for strategic enrollment management and marketing at Miami University in Ohio. Colleges vary on their preferences and typically spell that out in their application instructions.
The ideal scenario is when you can ask an instructor who taught you more than once – such as during freshman year and again later on – because then they can speak to your growth and how you might have overcome any particular challenges.
Duke, meanwhile, prefers letters from two teachers and a guidance counselor. "We find counselor recommendations so valuable in understanding the student as a member of a community," Guttentag says.
Do a social media check. Meister implores his ninth and tenth graders to not put anything on social media or online that could be questionable. Nonetheless, he says, when looking at their info, "nine times out of ten I find something they should take down."
And while it's true admissions officers don't have time to scroll through your entire Instagram feed, they may stumble upon social media info if searching online to verify a part of your app. What's more, it's not unusual for schools to be alerted by alumni, community members or others to social media that paints a student in an unflattering light.
"Most institutions put a disclaimer in acceptance letters that stipulates good behavior," Schaurer says, or they reserve the right to withdraw the offer of admission.
Meister advises students to always use appropriate language online and to scrub their social media to the extent they can of anything that doesn't reflect the image projected in their applications. "Admission officers are savvier than ever in comparing your application persona versus your recommender's impression of your persona versus your online persona to see if they all match up," he says.
A good rule of thumb: "I tell them that if they wouldn't want an admissions officer to see it, nobody else should see it online either," Meister adds.
Show up, to the extent you're able. Visiting the campus shows the admissions office that you'd be likely to attend if accepted. Showing up is still a great way to reveal what schools refer to as "demonstrated interest," a factor that some 70 percent of colleges say plays at least some role in their admissions decisions, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
At the same time, "most schools are attuned to resources," Schaurer says, and "they don't want to put students at risk who can't afford to come for a visit.
And be sure to introduce yourself to recruiters during visits to your high school or at local college fairs, Schaurer advises.
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