These guidelines can make a difference between acceptance or rejection
The college application process can be overwhelming under the best of circumstances. Even the most organized and calm student will feel the pressure of looming deadlines and anxiety about ending up at the right school. Wealthy families often hire college consultants to help their kids navigate the process and improve their odds of admission at their top-choice schools. But for many, paying for a consultant is out of the question. For that reason, I’ve compiled a list of tips that all high school students can use to get the competitive edge they deserve.
Take a deep breath: there will be stress, snafus, and even some sleepless nights. But you will get through this and end up at a wonderful school that’s right for you.
The very basics
1. Submit your materials on time.
2. Don’t assume your teachers, counselors, and letter writers have submitted their materials. Check on everything!
3. Don’t wait until the fall of your senior year to get started on your applications. Summer is a great time to work on essays.
4. Apply to a range of schools, including “stretch” schools that will be difficult to get into and “safeties” where you will have a high probability of acceptance.
5. Visit the College Board to get started.
6. Don’t let the application process overwhelm you. Do your best to dedicate some time each week to pieces of the application. Set goals and timelines. It’s a very exciting time, so try to enjoy the ride.
Your high school course work and grades
You will need to submit grades, test scores, letters of recommendation, applications with essays, and financial-aid forms. Here is a list of tips to help you optimize these mandatory materials, as well as additional insider tips:
7. Take the most difficult course load you can handle. Every school wants students who have shown resilience by striving to take demanding classes. Class rank is impressive only if linked to challenging courses.
8. If you scored high on standardized tests and chose not to take advanced placement (AP) or advanced classes, this will be a strike against you. Students who get easy A’s in high school will not impress admissions committees as much as those who took on significant challenges.
9. Don’t panic if you had a rough freshman year. Admissions folks love to see improvement. Conversely, it works against you to start strong and finish weak.
10. One C in chemistry or calculus is not a reason to rule out top schools. You are human. Admissions people know that and applaud you for pushing yourself in tough courses.
11. Some private high schools are eliminating AP courses, but most colleges still look at the results of AP tests to weed through thousands of applicants. If you are an excellent student, sign up for AP classes when possible. If you can’t, for whatever reason, remember that you don’t have to be enrolled in an AP class to take the exam. If you have a passion for a particular topic, you might want to try studying for some of them on your own.
Where and when to apply
12. Junior year is a great time to start figuring out what you want out of your college experience. Do you want to go to a big or small school? Rural or urban? Does the climate matter to you? Do you want a school with a Greek system? How far do you want to be from home? Small seminars or large lectures? Sports or arts? Learn about a school’s student body to see if you could picture yourself living and learning at the school.
13. Spend time researching online and offline to get a sense of the colleges and universities within your reach. There are lots of expensive college guides available, but Fiske Guide to Colleges and The Best 384 Colleges stand out for their readability and breadth. In addition, online guides such as College Inside Track and Unigo are a great way to get a sense of a school.
14. If you are a good student and have taken standardized tests, you will be inundated with offers from colleges to apply. The letters are flattering and numerous, but don’t be seduced into thinking you will probably be accepted.
15. Read “24 Common Mistakes in Choosing a College.”
16. In the summer of your junior year or even earlier, make a list of 30 schools that you find interesting. Choose schools ranging from stretch to safeties. This list is a work in progress and will be progressively shortened and updated, so keep your mind open to changing it as you learn more.
17. Take note of application dates and requirements for each school.
18. Some schools will waive the application fee if you visit the campus. If possible, visit even if they don’t. And if you are planning to apply to many schools, remember that you can also visit after you’re accepted.
19. Is it the one school that you’ve always dreamed of? Apply early decision (ED), and your chances will increase. Some schools fill up to 40% of their openings with ED because they want students who are willing to commit early. ED is binding and helps colleges guesstimate how many students to accept for regular admission. The downside of an ED commitment is that you can’t compare financial-aid packages offered by other schools. Use the College Board’s Net Price Calculator to see if applying ED makes sense for you. Please note that the calculation can be skewed by various factors, so don’t count on an exact match when you get your actual financial-aid package.
20. Early Action is another strategy for students who have a strong sense of where they want to apply. Early Action deadlines are usually on or before November 1 with a decision by the middle of December. Early Action is nonbinding, and you can apply Early Action to multiple colleges. This allows you to compare financial-aid packages, which can be vital to your ability to attend.
21. If you are still visiting schools, doing research, talking to friends, and need more time, regular admission is the way to go. Just keep track of each school’s deadlines. If there is a rolling deadline, increase your odds of getting in by not waiting until the last minute.
22. Attending a summer program on campus is a great way to preview your dream school. You can often get credit for college courses and experience campus life. But don’t sign up just to impress the admissions office. The program should be related to what you are interested in and want to pursue in college.
23. Applying to schools where you add geographic, cultural, or academic diversity can improve your chances of getting in.
24. Legacies (children of alumni) do get a leg up in admissions, as do siblings and other relatives of alumni. If your sister or mother went to the same school, be sure to let admissions know.
25. If possible, find an advocate at the school who will try to make sure your application gets a fair read. An advocate can be an orchestra conductor, professor, coach, dean, and so on. Personal connections aren’t necessary, but they do help!
26. If your family earns above $100,000 and you are not guaranteed a full ride, be sure to apply not only to an academic safety school but also to a financial safety school—one you can afford without aid and that will accept your academic credentials. Hopefully you won’t need this security, but it does reduce some of the stress.
Letters of recommendation
27. Choose teachers, employers, and others who know you well enough to write the best letter possible.
28. Give recommenders at least a month to write great letters.
29. Provide a note that gives the letter’s due date and that reminds the recommender how long you have known each other (including dates), where you met, and anything else you might want included in the letter. Don’t be shy! The more information you provide, the easier it will be for the recommender to write a great letter.
30. Letters from senators or famous folks will help only if those writing the letters really know you. Any admissions person worth his or her salt can sniff out when someone is writing a letter as a favor instead of because they actually know the candidate well.
31. Make sure your letters are relevant to your interests. Are you aiming to be accepted to a theater program? Then a letter from your Spanish teacher won’t hold as much weight as one from the drama teacher that explains your talent and dedication to theater.
32. Not all colleges require standardized tests. If you are someone who doesn’t score well, no matter how much you study, focus on schools that have done away with test requirements. This is becoming increasingly common.
33. Are you a great test taker? Some schools will offer a full ride if you score super high on your SATs. For example, the University of Alabama offers free admission for those who score 1450 or higher.
34. Take practice tests and read up on strategies for acing standardized tests. Some local libraries offer free practice tests.
35. Take advantage of the SAT prep hints and questions on the Naviance system, which tracks all your college applications.
36. If you require testing accommodations for a disability, start looking early for a testing site. It is sometimes difficult to find a testing site that provides accommodations.
37. During your junior year, take both the ACT and the SAT to determine which test you do better on, and then focus on improving on that specific test, if necessary.
38. Try taking three SAT Subject Tests. You may not choose to send all the scores to schools, but if you do well, they can be very helpful. If Subject Tests are not mandatory, only send scores above 600. If you are applying to a particular program, there may be a Subject Test requirement.
39. If you are applying to a certain program, such as engineering or pre-med, take SAT Subject Tests that signal you are ready for the program, such as math and biology.
40. If you opt for the Math Subject Test, take the higher level. Send the message that you feel secure in math.
41. If you are a strong test taker, it makes sense to click the box that says “share my info” when signing up for the SAT. Your scores may prompt schools to send you “apply now, no fee, no essay” offers. But don’t waste your valuable time applying to a school that you would never want to attend just because it offers a “bargain.”
42. Don’t send your scores to schools until you’ve compiled your best test profile.
43. Testing is expensive, so see if you qualify for testing-fee waivers.
44. ACT and SAT scores can impact financial-aid packages, so make an effort to test early so that you can work to improve your scores, if necessary.
45. Be aware of test-score averages for your preferred colleges and universities, but don’t rule out schools if your scores are a little below the average. First-generation college students, minority students, and college athletes are less likely to have low test scores held against them.
46. Be well rested and prepared on test days. Arrive early, and take some deep breaths before you begin. Also, be sure to wear a watch!
The application and essays
47. Stick to the guidelines. Don’t give them a reason to reject you.
48. This is your chance to impress. Don’t wait until the last minute to put your application together.
49. Don’t let a parent, teacher, or other adult hijack your application, but do have a trusted adult read through your responses. If a parent is trying to take over the process, tell the parent to read about why he or she should be encouraging resilience instead.
50. Applications and essays offer you a chance to show schools who you are. Don’t try to be someone else—it never works. Instead, be the best version of yourself.
51. Show personality, but don’t try for sarcasm or display disdain for the process. No matter how witty your writing may be, it may not go over well.
52. College essays are a great opportunity to grab attention and show aspects of yourself that the other parts of the application haven’t revealed. In other words, if you are a math whiz with grades to prove it, don’t write about being good at math.
53. The more competitive the school, the more information admissions folks will expect, since they have to choose among high-achieving high school seniors. Be ready to tell a compelling story of taking academic initiative and showing a specific element that makes you stand out. Did you start a business? Work in a lab? Make sure that you highlight one element that makes you special and helps you stand out from the crowd.
54. Be creative and earnest. Overworked admissions folks don’t want to read another essay about your great touchdown, your pet, or how much you learned while volunteering that one time.
55. Do not write about illegal activities or highly controversial topics.
56. Present yourself as someone who will make an impact at college and beyond.
57. Know the school you are applying to, and be specific about why it’s right for you. Don’t say you want to be in a fraternity, only to learn that there is no Greek system on campus. Make admissions officers feel like you really want to go to that particular school and not that you’re just filling out lots of applications.
58. Whether you’re writing a supplemental essay or short answer, be sure to answer the question fully, and be sincere.
59. Read “How to Write a Winning College Essay” for extra tips.
60. Use the College Board’s NPC, mentioned earlier, but only as a guesstimate. It may give a wrong number based on false assumptions about other siblings in college, and so on.
61. Check out the Scholly app or College Greenlight to find extra money and scholarships. But be aware that outside scholarships may impact your need-based aid. If you qualify for aid, weigh the pros and cons of receiving an outside scholarship.
62. Unless you are a Rockefeller or a movie star, apply for financial aid regardless of your economic circumstances.
63. Don’t rule out a school based on cost. Expensive private schools have large endowments and often offer large financial-aid packages.
64. Expensive private colleges can end up costing less than public universities that are strapped for cash.
65. Some states, such as New York, offer free tuition to state colleges and universities to families that earn less than $100,000 a year. See if your state has such a program.
66. If you qualify for America’s most prestigious schools, your financial needs will often be met. For children of single moms, see my analysis of why you should aim for elite schools.
67. Community college can be cost effective, but not always. Be sure to weigh the price of board and transportation. Make sure to take courses with credits that will transfer with you, or you will lose money and time.
68. Financial-aid packages are not set in stone. If you are offered more money from one school, you can negotiate with another school for more aid. It won’t always work, but playing schools off each other is always worth a try.
69. If you need financial aid but can’t demonstrate as much need as more economically challenged students, pick a school where you are far above the incoming average grade point average (GPA) and you have a good chance of getting merit aid—for example, a 3.5 GPA where the average incoming GPA is 3.0. Keep in mind that not all universities give merit-based aid, and many state schools have limited funds to do so.
The college athlete
70. The summer of your junior year in high school, reach out to coaches at the colleges you’re targeting if they haven’t already contacted you. Send a letter of introduction with your grades, test scores, and athletic accomplishments to get the ball rolling. If you have a video to send of you performing, all the better.
71. Keep potential coaches updated about your academic and sport-related accomplishments during the application process.
72. Just because a coach is communicating with you in a positive manner doesn’t mean he or she will definitely recruit you. Coaches need to hedge their bets, so they will often reach out to more athletes than they can give scholarships to or advocate for in the admissions office.
73. Look into participating in college showcases where college coaches find new talent.
74. If a coach invites you to campus for a weekend, GO! These visits will help determine if you would fit with the team, and they can make or break whether you are recruited.
75. Keep in mind that college scholarships, even Division 1, are not always a full ride.
76. Since Division 3 schools can’t give scholarships but want top athletes, the coach may get an early read on your application from the admissions office. You will usually get a thumbs-up, a thumbs-down, or a warning that you need to improve in a particular area to get a thumbs-up. These signals are not binding, but they can be very useful. Some coaches will let you know if you are an athlete they will fight for—or if they just don’t have much sway with admissions.
77. Look into rules and regulations on the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, website to make sure you won’t jeopardize your eligibility.
78. Find out as much as possible about the potential coach and team. Ask current and past team members specific questions about team culture, demands, their biggest challenge, and so on. If the school really wants you, don’t expect to get the full story, but you can get a sense of what to expect by asking specific questions. Don’t trust recruiters to be straightforward. Many an athlete has discovered that the coach they met on their recruiting visit is gone, and the personality of the actual coach is a huge disappointment.
79. Here’s some food for thought for you and your parent as you consider college sports: “Parenting the Future College Athlete” and “The Pros and Cons of Youth Sports Aren’t Only Physical.”
Extracurricular activities and specialized programs
80. Colleges will be impressed if you show passion and leadership in a high school club or activity, but not if it’s clear you joined a bunch of clubs just to try to improve your application.
81. Starting a new organization or club shows initiative.
82. If you plan to pursue an extracurricular passion in college, let schools know. Are you amazing at Ultimate Frisbee? Many colleges would appreciate this.
83. Is your intent to play in the orchestra or marching band? Make sure you will have a chance to audition. Reach out to the admissions office, and find out whom you should talk to.
84. Most music programs will expect to receive links to YouTube videos of you displaying your talent.
85. Are you applying to art school? Start thinking about your portfolio early, and look for opportunities to learn about or ask questions about optimizing your portfolio.
86. Are you juggling a paying job with high school? Put this on your application, as it will indicate maturity, responsibility, and superior time-management skills.
87. Don’t count on strong extracurricular activities to boost your financial aid, but they do make you stand out in comparison to other high school seniors.
Waiting and deciding
88. Once you’ve submitted your applications, let them go, and see where the chips fall. Accept that you have no control over what comes next, and don’t take rejection personally!
89. Expect rejections and waiting lists. If you aren’t rejected, you didn’t aim high enough.
90. Being wait-listed can be stressful, especially when you’re waiting on your first or strongest choice. The truth is, most people don’t get in from the waiting list, but some do. If you are willing to wait, and if you have the money needed to put down a deposit on another school, your chances will increase. The College Board also publishes wait-list odds for each school, so be sure to get as much information as possible. If something incredible has happened to you since you submitted your application, such as getting published or being invited to the Olympics, be sure to let the school know.
91. No school is a slam dunk. Valedictorians and students with perfect SAT scores get rejected all the time. Will they probably end up at a great school? Sure! But never assume you will automatically get into a school.
92. It’s impossible to predict how an admissions reader will react to a particular application. If he just had a fight with his teenage son, your application may remind him of that struggle. Or another may see herself in your story and overlook some of the weaknesses in your application.
93. Admissions decisions won’t always make sense, in part because they contain elements of good and bad luck. Colleges must build a diverse freshman class that has diverse skills. If you play violin and the college already has five violinists, it’s a case of bad luck. If you are a soccer goalie, and the school’s two best goalies just quit, that’s good luck.
After you’ve made a choice
94. Once you get into a school, keep your grades up. Colleges can and will rescind their acceptance if they see signs that you are slacking off.
95. Behave yourself on social media. There have been plenty of instances of college-bound seniors losing their chance to attend their school of choice because they posted inappropriate content.
Good to know
96. If you need more support or are feeling overwhelmed, there are helpful blogs you can turn to, including The College Solution, Collegewise, and Essay Hell.
97. Students who are determined to go to medical school should consider the handful of schools that participate in the University of Rochester Medical School Early Assurance Program. Schools such as Spelman, Colgate, Bowdoin, and Xavier give students the opportunity to gain conditional admission to the University of Rochester’s College of Medicine. Students in this program are not required to take the MCAT exam and receive a paid eight-week research experience at the University of Rochester.
98. If you are interested in taking a gap year before college, apply to schools first, and then go for it! Let schools know of your plans on their applications. Then you will be able to enjoy your gap year knowing which school you will attend and without having to attend to paperwork. By contrast, taking a year off without having already applied to college can be tricky, since you will need to stay on top of the application process. Colleges and universities increasingly look favorably on gap years, but for many students, it doesn’t make financial sense.
99. The personal interview is declining in importance as a significantly evaluative part of the college application. So don’t sweat it if you can’t arrange an interview. If you do go for the interview, be sure to have a great answer to the question, “Why do you want to attend this school?”
100. I’ve heard countless stories of students who didn’t get into their first-choice schools. The overriding theme is that, in retrospect, they are exactly where they need to be. Don’t get caught up in where “everyone” else is applying. Apply to schools that feel right for you.
You’ve got this! Good luck!
Updated on 11/5/18.
Dr. Marika Lindholm founded ESME.com to ignite a social movement of Solo Moms. A trained sociologist, Marika taught courses on inequality, diversity, and gender at Northwestern University for over a decade. After a divorce left her parenting two children on her own, she realized Solo Moms lacked much-needed resources, support, and connection. She built her social platform, Empowering Solo Moms Everywhere, out of this combination of academic and personal experience. Marika is also the coeditor of We Got This: Solo Mom Stories of Grit, Heart, and Humor, a frank, funny, and unflinchingly honest anthology—written by 75 Solo Mom writers, including Amy Poehler, Anne Lamott, and Elizabeth Alexander—that celebrates Solo Moms: their tenacity, courage, and fierce love for their children. Marika can be reached at email@example.com.
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