Planning your High School Years to Maximize College Choices

I remember reading a few of the great Shakespearean tragedies in one of my high school English classes. I recognized that Shakespeare was perceptive and insightful for his time (and to an extent, for ours too – people don’t become literary legends for nothing!) However, I also remember thinking that for whatever masterpieces he wrote, he actually knew little of the tragedies of our day. Of course, back then, I was a high school student, so I also wasn’t attuned to real tragedies, but at the time, I had fears too. Some students I knew didn’t get into their dream schools. Even worse, some students didn’t get into any of the schools they applied to.

It’s enough to inspire nightmares. Fortunately, my friends and I each made it into good schools (even if they weren’t the schools necessarily of our dreams.) Looking back now, I realize all the stress wasn’t necessary. All we needed…and all we had done…was planned smartly.

Ninth grade. Planning begins in the ninth grade.

The students who (unfortunately) failed to get accepted to any of their applied schools failed to realize that since colleges begin looking at a student from his freshman year in high school, that’s when they should begin planning. These students began high school with bad grades, didn’t necessarily get involved with meaningful activities, and worst of all, they couldn’t turn the tables around quickly enough for applications. The worst part of the tragedy: most realized they had done themselves great disservices only as time was running out.

What and how should you plan to avoid this? Planning should be practical; you should look at what schools generally want from students. You don’t need to have a dream school or a major the moment you step into your freshman classes – in fact, many students can’t figure out these things even after they’ve spent a couple of years in university! However, you should recognize that most universities will care about 1) your grades and test scores, 2) your extracurricular involvement, 3) community service or sports involvement, 4) meaningful awards and distinctions, and 5) your personality and writing ability. Don’t fear that your life is over if you don’t have one of these things; just recognize that with four years and a plan, you can improve your weak spots or make your strong spots shine. These will maximize your options, notwithstanding the particular requirements of select schools.

From ninth grade on, you should carefully select your courses. If you want to be competitive academically, consider jumping onto the AP, Honors or IB course tracks in subjects you are interested in. You will learn more, learn to manage your time better (which is invaluable at the university level), and show to colleges that you actively challenge yourself. However, recognize that school isn’t *just* academics. Extracurricular classes can work in your favor as well: foreign languages are impressive (if not required) for most schools, and musical ability can easily be worked in your favor as a sign of your dedication. In whatever classes you choose, just think about taking something meaningful to you from it. After all, the development of you as a person is your greatest asset.

Your personal development is also why extracurricular activities are important. Although there are different philosophies for joining clubs (some advocate joining as many clubs as possible to fill up application blanks; others advocate only joining a few), once again there are some generally accepted admissions principles that you should keep in mind. Colleges like students with breadth – a wide range of competencies – and students with depth – focus in their activities. What you *don’t* want to do when you plan to join clubs is join clubs just because they will look good on a resume. A better extracurricular is one that you’re interested in that you will stick with for several years (depth) or one that allows you to be involved with several types of things (breadth).

Why are extracurriculars even important? You might think that grades and test scores are the only things that matter, but think about this: colleges want interesting people. Yes, smart people are productive and make great workers, but when these smart people are involved in things beyond the books, this shows they have interests. Extracurriculars can help make you 3-dimensional…something that provides you with an edge for applying to colleges.

Once again, you don’t have to know everything about your likes and dislikes…it’s ok to experiment with different clubs. However, you want to be active in the clubs you do join, not only to get the most out of them, but also to increase your rapport with the people who could be speaking for you – via recommendation letter – and your ethic.

All of this planning isn’t just for the sake of being specific with your life, though. It serves a higher goal of eventually focusing the character that you will present to colleges. After the smoke clears, maximizing your college choices is really about distinguishing yourself from all the other students. Any student can have a 4.0 GPA, 2400 SAT, and be involved in 30 million clubs. These applications don’t excite anyone; they don’t distinguish.

Lessons learned from life, extracurricular activities, classes, or anything else…these experiences are the fuel for interesting people – this is why colleges generally require essays (and some will even interview). Certainly they want to know how well you can write or speak, but it’s not just an English class. The application essay’s primary purpose is to personalize what would otherwise be just a jumble of numbers and a list of involvements. To maximize college choices, you simply must maximize life-building opportunities in high school that you can then draw from to write about someone real and valuable.