What matters most when you’re trying to get into college? In a word: grades. If you do nothing else in high school, keep your grades up. At a basic level, it really is that simple.
More specifically, the factors that matter most to colleges are these:
- high school GPA
- grades in college preparatory courses
- strength of curriculum
- SAT or ACT scores
And after that?
- essays or writing samples
- demonstrated interest in the school
- letters of recommendation from teachers or counselors
- class rank
- extracurricular activities
Let’s talk about how to approach your high school coursework, your activities, and your application to improve your college acceptance odds.
Take challenging core classes
Earning straight As in the easiest courses your high school offers won’t impress anyone, and it won’t prepare you for more rigorous college courses. Look for classes that give you a combination of challenging yourself academically and succeeding. Top marks in the core subjects of history, math, English, science, and foreign language matter more than success in nonacademic electives, unless you’re a top athlete — but this article is for the students who aren’t.
Some students are smart enough, prepared enough, and lucky enough to enter high school enrolled in the most advanced classes across the board. They excel in those classes and continue to thrive in challenging classes throughout their sophomore, junior, and senior years.
Most students will take a less straightforward path. They might enroll in the middle tier of classes freshman year, and based on how they perform; they might drop down to less challenging classes in some subjects for sophomore year and go up to more challenging classes in others.
Some schools don’t offer advanced or Honors classes. In these cases, students who need a challenge — and a way to stand out when they apply to college — will need to find alternatives. These might include local community college courses, online Advanced Placement courses, or online college courses. As a bonus, it may be possible to earn simultaneous high school and college credit.
Look at it this way: School takes up a lot of time and energy. You don’t want to be bored, and you don’t want to be frustrated. Try to pick classes that offer the right level of challenge so you can feel engaged, learn what you need to learn, and create a solid transcript.
Commit to extracurricular activities
Depth matters more than breadth when it comes to extracurriculars. It won’t help to belong to ten clubs, because admissions officers know it’s impossible to make a meaningful contribution to that many organizations. Plus, you’ll probably feel stretched thin, trying to hit all those meetings and pay all those dues. Instead, make a solid commitment to one or two activities you’re passionate about so you can really make a difference.
If you can take on a leadership position within those activities, even better. This doesn’t have to mean becoming the officer of an organization, there are limited spots for those, and sometimes they’re won on popularity, not merit.
Leadership could mean spearheading a project of your own design. If your Spanish National Honor Society offers a tutoring program for students who are learning English and you learn that those students don’t just need English for school but English to help them get after-school jobs, create a program that fills that need. Teach them the vocab; fill out sample job applications; conduct practice interviews. Keep track of how many people you help and the results they get.
Being able to participate in extracurriculars is a luxury, as some students need to earn money or take care of family members. If that’s you, don’t assume your extracurricular game is dead. How can you maximize the opportunities you have? Can you get on a managerial track at your part-time job? Don’t just work hard and hope to get promoted; tell your manager about your goals and ask how to achieve them. Colleges want students who are responsible, motivated and take the initiative. So do employers.
Write an engaging essay
Your essay is your best shot at showing the admissions office who you are. It is your chance to showcase yourself in more depth than your transcript and a list of extracurriculars can. What can you tell the admissions office that will help you stand out? What makes you unique? And can you write? The ability to write a clear and engaging piece with correct grammar and punctuation can boost your application.
Choose your essay topic carefully and put your draft through many rounds of revisions. Get input from teachers and college counselors with topic selection and writing. You will also find lots of strategies and tips online for college essays:
- use a narrative structure
- write about a challenge you overcame
- avoid common topics and cliches
- don’t repeat things included elsewhere in your application
Some English teachers will even assign personal essays to help you generate ideas and practice for your college application. Being able to spend class time and homework time on something you have to do anyway while getting free personalized feedback can be a big help, so take full advantage of this opportunity if you get it.
Develop relationships with teachers whose classes you work hard in
You’re going to need recommendation letters to get into most schools, and teachers will write better letters if they actually know you and if they respect your work ethic. That means participating in class, turning in assignments on time, asking questions after class or after school about subjects you’re especially interested in, and joining any clubs or activities your teacher sponsors. It doesn’t mean playing teacher’s pet or being insincere; your teacher and classmates will see right through it, and no one likes a phony.
Approach recommendation letters the right way
You should not try to tell a teacher what to write in a letter about you, nor should you expect to read it. That said, it is a good idea to give your teacher or counselor a list of your strengths, accomplishments, challenges you’ve overcome, and weaknesses you are improving on. Then you are ready for an unrushed conversation about these points.
Teachers have so many students to keep track of, so they may not know you as well as you think. At the same time, they might have special insights about your performance and behavior based on their observations, teaching, and life experience. This conversation could be a time to get an excellent letter of recommendation, to grow as a student, and receive advice about college.
Get your request in early, months ahead of the application deadline, especially if you have chosen a popular teacher. You don not want someone who could influence your college chances to be grumpy or rushed when they’re writing about you.
There are many ways to demonstrate an interest in a school: introducing yourself to a representative at your high school’s college fair, completing an informational interview with an alumnus, or visiting the campus and sitting in on classes, to name a few.
Demonstrated interest matters at some schools more than others. It may not even matter at all. But when it does matter, a 2017 study says certain types of demonstrated interest matter more than others: a college visit often carries more weight.
That’s fine if you have the means to pay for the trip and your parents can take the time off work, and if you’re not choosing a college during a pandemic.
Applying early decision or early interest are also good ways to show you’re serious about a school, and these options are much more accessible to students of limited means and during crazy times.
But don’t worry about it too much unless you know the schools you want to attend care about this factor.
A word about test scores
High SAT, and ACT scores have long been among the most important criteria for getting into your college of choice, especially for the nation’s most selective schools. But due to concerns about the shortcomings of standardized tests, many colleges and universities have
Then, due to COVID-19, more schools waived standardized tests as an entrance requirement for 2020 admissions. Find out what your target schools’ test requirements are before you dedicate time or money to test prep.
Playing the college admissions game to win
Each college has a unique mission and reputation. It wants to attract certain types of students. Learning what colleges want, then creating a plan to meet those criteria, is a solid strategy to increase your admissions chances. CollegeData, a college advice website, has a tool called College Match that shows how much specific schools care about different factors in their admissions decisions.
After all, you probably don’t want to go to just any college. You’re probably interested in specific schools, or you will be after paging through a college’s website, talking about schools with your friends, and getting input from your parents and teachers.
Sometimes, getting into college can feel like a high-stakes game that every decision might make or break. Don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself. Try to stay focused on the present, because the choices you make throughout high school are not just about trying to get into college. You’re trying to learn critical thinking and problem-solving skills, understand the world we live in, and get better at expressing yourself. These abilities will help you succeed in school, work, and relationships throughout your life, regardless of where you end up.