You want to attend a top notch University? If you are reading this you have taken the first step by showing initiative. The process will be difficult though, and the only way to make sure you are in control is to be prepared.
This guide will give you a head start:
Understand the Process
In order to give yourself the best chance of admissions to the nation’s top colleges you must understand the process they use to select you, and what exactly they look for. One of the many terms you will hear is wholeistic admissions. This means that they evaluate every piece of your application as a whole.
This is not to say that there are not basic assumptions about test scores and grades, but that every application will considered in its entirety. With this in mind it is important to excel in every facet of the application process and be sure that each piece works together to show the real you. They want to know what you will be able to bring to their campus and your application should tell them that story-your story!
Have a Plan
As you navigate your way through the process it helps to know what colleges ask for in the application since that is the only information they will see about you. The main parts of the application are:
Course Difficulty and Performance Extra-Curricular Activities and Involvement Standardized Test Scores Letters of Recommendation and The Essay
1. Course Load and Performance
All colleges will take your grade point average, or GPA, into consideration as one of the most important factors in understanding your academic record. The GPA is a number calculated by assigning an A a value of four, a B three and so on. They take your average score from each class and come out with a number between 0 and 4.0. 4.0 is a perfect GPA and the closer you are to that the better.
There is another measure called weighted GPA. This takes in to account the difficulty of a course by giving five points for an A, four for B etc. for harder classes such as Advanced Placement, Honors, or International Baccalaureate.
Why do they do this? The answer is one of the keys to competitive admissions. Top schools expect you to take the most difficult and rigorous schedule your high school offers. With this in mind a good GPA is meaningless to these colleges if you are only taking the easy road to get better grades. On your application your high school counselor or principal will be asked to rate your schedule for difficulty and for the best chance at competitive admissions you want your schedule to be your schools “most difficult”.
Do not worry if your high school does not offer AP, IB, and other advanced level classes. Admissions officers only expect you to do the best with the opportunities you are given, and will not penalize you as long as you take the hardest classes available to you.
Just remember that almost all of the applicants at these colleges have great grades, but the admissions officers want to know if you are ambitious and if you can handle the high level work their schools are offering, and your course load is one of the easiest ways to show this.
2. Extra-Curricular Activities and School/Community Involvement
Obviously there is more to you then your grades in school, and admissions officers understand that. That is why the common application form includes a section for extracurricular activities. This is where you get to show colleges how you shine outside the classroom.
Remember that your application works as a unit, so it will be to your advantage if at least some of what you do outside of school matches up with your strengths in the classroom, your essay topic, and what your teachers say in their letters of recommendation. With this in mind it is important to select activities you enjoy and that highlight your real interests and talents. It is usually obvious if you join a club or team just to look good on your college resume. Do what you love, it will show!
Even so, not all activities are created equal. What sets top colleges apart from the pack is they want leaders. Seek leadership within your favorite clubs or teams. Nothing looks better then showing initiative and creativity. Anyone can join a club, but leaders follow their passion even if they have to blaze a new trail.
Starting your own successful club, business, or community service organization will show colleges that you are a leader. Still remember that sports, arts, community service and jobs all qualify as extracurricular activities and deserve recognition, just make sure to focus your application on the ones you are passionate about.
3. Standardized Test Scores (ACT or SAT)
Colleges and universities need a way to compare the academic progress of students from all corners of the country, all types of high schools and all walks of life. They do this in order to assure that these students can handle the rigorous work they are about to undertake and to determine which students are most prepared.
This is where standardized tests come in. In America there are two main standardized test and most universities will take either. They are the ACT and the SAT. Although these tests are equal in the eyes of admissions officers, they are not necessarily equally difficult. I would recommend doing some research and practice tests to determine which is right for you. If you want to gain admission into them most prestigious institutions you will need to score highly. You can see each institution’s median range (25th-75th percentile) scores on their websites or with a simple Google search if you want to see how your score stacks up.
Generally to even merit consideration at top schools you will need an ACT composite of 30+ and or an SAT around 2000. Also note that many top tier universities require you to take SATII subject tests or the ACT with writing so be sure to check the websites of the schools you are applying to for specific requirements. If you find you need to improve these scores the best tip anyone can give you is practice, practice, practice!
Often the biggest challenge is learning to understand the format of the test, the pacing and time strategy and so on. Taking numerous practice tests will help you with your test taking skills and reduce anxiety on test day.
4. Letters of Recommendation
One of the ways colleges get to see who you really are is letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are just letters written by adults who know you (not your family) like teachers, coaches, employers, and your school counselor. The common application asks for three.
To make sure these are the best possible there is really only two things you can do. The first is to be respectful, ambitious, hardworking, and just an enjoyable person to be around. Now obviously not everyone will love you but you will get better recommendations from a teacher who likes and respects you then one who you constantly annoy. With this in mind try to select someone you have a close relationship with and who knows you for who you are. That will show through in the letter.
5. The Essay
Often the most overlooked part of an application is the essay. The essay is the only thing that an admissions committee sees that is produced by you. It is their window into your life and soul. The absolute best advice is to make your essay you.
You want to shine through in your essay and this is accomplished by choice of topic, and by your voice as a writer. The common application includes the prompt “topic of your choice” and most people will find this is the easiest way to write your essay. Evaluate your application for the type of story it tells. Your strengths in and out of the classroom should match up with your choice of essay topic. Whatever it is that makes you tick find a way to tie it in to your essay.
Lastly be sure to avoid silly mistakes. Proofread your essay several times, and then ask someone else to do the same. Preferably have it proofread ten or more times before you send it in. The easiest way to kill a good essay is with poor spelling and grammar.
The most important thing to remember is to enjoy the journey. Whether or not you are admitted to your dream school the process will teach you valuable lessons that will help you succeed wherever you end up.
If you remember to approach the process with enthusiasm, optimism, and the proper preparation it will be a rewarding experience. Remember High School is short, so enjoy the ride!