A logical first step when you begin the college application process is to understand the primary factors college admission officials consider when evaluating you for acceptance. These include:
- High school transcript
- Guidance recommendation
- Teacher recommendation(s)
- Application for admission
- Including extracurricular activities
- Including essays
- Standardized tests
Your high school transcript is a report of the classes you’ve taken and the grades you’ve earned since freshman year. Admissions officers will review your transcript through the middle of senior year when evaluating you for acceptance.
Pick your classes carefully and challenge yourself—appropriately. Don’t ‘skate by’ in easy classes when you are capable of more, but don’t overload yourself with too many challenging classes or AP courses and set yourself up for possible failure.
Admissions officers understand that some students have a period of adjustment when they enter high school. They look for a general improvement in grades over time. Likewise, if you had a quarter or two where your grades suffered, it is not a catastrophe. Admissions officers appreciate seeing that you are able to recover from such a setback. Realize that hardly anyone has a “perfect” transcript. Instead, focus on performing well and at a high level in the subjects that you particularly enjoy.
Your guidance counselor will be writing a recommendation that will become a part of your application. Many guidance counselors provide their students, or even a student’s family, with a form to complete that provides enough detail to help them write a tailored recommendation. If this is the case for your school, make sure to take the time to provide thoughtful responses.
Consider finding time to meet with your guidance counselor one-on-one. Counselors offer a wealth of experience and have advice to share, but often must juggle competing priorities along with providing academic and social support for a large student caseload. Schedule an in-person meeting so your counselor can get to better know you, your interests, and college aspirations.
You will need to request two recommendations from teachers. Consider teachers that you have developed a warm relationship with and who teach subjects which are of particular interest to you, particularly as you look ahead to what you might want to study in college. If you are interested in engineering or a STEM field, make sure that one of these recommendations is from a STEM teacher.
You may find your favorite teacher is also popular with your peers, but will only be able to write a limited number of recommendations. If this is the case, the early bird gets the worm. You should request teacher recommendations well before the end of junior year.
Consider providing a resume or an email with additional background information about you to the teacher who has agreed to write a recommendation for you. For example, your biology teacher knows you by your participation in class and your coursework, but may not know about your outside interests or what you hope to study in college. Sharing this information may help your teacher write a more targeted recommendation.
College applications such as the CommonApp or the Coalition for College application offer space for you to list up to ten extracurricular activities with short descriptions. Extracurriculars fall into a myriad of categories, such as scholastic or club sports, after school clubs, summer or part-time jobs, community service work, tutoring peers, and more. How you rank these within the application is entirely up to you. A few guidelines to consider:
- List activities in order of their importance to you, the leadership you achieved, or your time invested. For example, if you are a student government vice president, you might want to order that ahead of casual participation in a sport at the junior varsity level.
- List activities in order of geographic reach, from international, national, regional, state, local, and finally in school. For example, if you competed in a robotics competition at the regional level in addition to at the local level, you might want to rank this activity ahead of others.
- If you participated in a varsity or club sport or a performing arts ensemble that required a tryout or auditioned selection, make sure to mention this, as well any accolades the group achieved while you were a participant. For example, if you were a starting varsity member of the soccer team that placed second in the state championships, include this detail.
- Use action verbs, and give yourself credit for the responsibility that you held. Be descriptive within the allowed character count. For example, instead of saying, “My job as a life guard including watching swimmers,” you might describe this instead as, “Ensured safety of swimmers, explained and enforced water and pool area safety rules. Successfully administered first aid for minor injuries.”
- Don’t repeat content that you may have already included in the Education Honors section of the application, unless you feel compelled to share more detail. For example, if you are a member of the national honor society and also were elected as an officer, you may want to elaborate on this.
I’ve offered advice in earlier posts on how to tell a compelling story that shows, rather tells, something about you in the personal statement or ‘main’ college application essay. Many colleges require additional or supplemental essays. If you are applying to multiple schools, you may find it helpful to review the prompts for all your supplemental essays before you start to write because you may see some similarities in the prompts that will allow you to re-use some content. But be careful to avoid re-treading some of the content you’ve already shared in your personal statement. Instead, use supplemental essays as an opportunity to highlight additional interests or experiences.
The College Board recently eliminated the essay component of the SAT and also eliminated SAT subject tests. Nearly every college acknowledged the unique difficulties high school students faced in 2019-2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic by going “test optional.“ Unfortunately, for some schools, this was a temporary, one to three-year exception. However if standardized testing is not your strong suit, take comfort in the fact that admissions officers lean more heavily on your transcript as a predictor of your ability to succeed in college than standardized test scores, and more than 1,300 colleges are test-optional. On the other hand, if you typically perform well on standardized tests, a strong ACT or SAT score may bolster your attractiveness as an applicant.
If you are taking an AP course, make sure to register for the AP exam before the March registration deadline. Note that your school’s registration deadline may be earlier. You can often take an AP exam even if the course is not offered at your high school. You may need to do the legwork to find a school nearby that offers the exam, but this might be worth the effort if you are a strong performer in the subject.
Some universities offer college credit for strong AP scores (3-5, depending on the school), and many use AP scores as criteria to exempt you from required introductory coursework. The cost of taking an AP exam is $95.00, while the cost of a typical credit college course may be $1,500 or more.
Note however, that many universities limit the number of course credits that you can claim through AP exams. Some state universities may accept as much as 32 credits, while highly competitive universities may accept none. If you are an academic performer and cost-conscious, you may be able to graduate in 3 or 3.5 years, instead of 4, representing a meaningful savings on tuition, room, and board.