Applying and gaining acceptance to a college is an experience unlike any other for students and their families. The process requires hard work, determination, and usually the help of loved ones and school professionals.
The requirements for getting into college are also numerous. On top of earning good grades and taking standardized tests, students need to write creative application essays, participate in extracurricular activities, and gather letters of recommendation.
However, getting into a school that matches your educational goals doesn't have to be an uphill battle. Below, we’ve compiled some of the best tips to help you increase your admission chances as you work through your college applications.
Tips for College Admission
Focus on Academics
A good high school GPA, especially combined with a challenging curriculum, is one of the most important admission factors at any institution of higher education. If you have the option, choose to take as many challenging courses as you can handle in high school, such as college prep, Advanced Placement (AP), honors, and International Baccalaureate (IB) courses.
Not only can these kinds of courses help you earn college credits, but getting good test scores on AP tests can dramatically improve your chances of acceptance. Whether you choose to take advanced courses or not, your top priority throughout all four years of high school should be to earn the best grades you possibly can.
Prep for and Take the SAT/ACT
Followed by your GPA and the strength of your high school curriculum, your standardized test scores arguably matter the most for admission — although many schools have started to make these tests optional.
Prior to and during your junior year of high school, you should spend sufficient time preparing for standardized tests by enrolling in prep courses, hiring a tutor, working through study guides, and taking practice tests.
Once you’re ready, take both the SAT and the ACT. Colleges generally accept either test, and you may do better on one test than the other. If you don’t score well on your first attempts, you always have the option to retake them.
Apply to a Diverse Selection of Colleges
When applying to colleges, be sure you apply for a number of schools, including “safety,” “match,” and “reach” schools. At some point early in your junior year, work with your high school counselor to put together a list of schools where you meet all the necessary criteria for admission. These will be your “match” or “safety” schools — schools whose admissions criteria you meet or exceed.
Once you apply to these schools, you can also apply to “reach” schools, or colleges that are less likely to admit you due to their competitive applicant pool. Applying to schools in this sequence assures you that, even if you don’t get admitted to your dream school, you have a high likelihood of being admitted to at least one college.
If you’re dedicated to attending a specific college or university, sending in an early application around November is possibly one of the best ways to increase your admission chances. This is because colleges generally admit a much higher percentage of students in their early decision and early action rounds.
Early decision is a system in which high school seniors apply before traditional deadlines. You can only apply to one school with early decision. The decision is also binding, and if accepted, the student is required to attend that college or university.
Early action works similarly, though the student is not bound to attend the school. So if you really love the school, feel good about your grades and test scores, and have your application together by mid-fall, it’s absolutely worth applying through early decision or early action.
To learn more about early action vs. early decision, check out Chinh Ngo’s article on the decision-making process.
Colleges want to improve the percentage of admitted students who actually enroll, and one way they achieve this is by tracking demonstrated interest from applicants. If you are genuinely interested in attending a specific university, or if there are a few that you would enroll in if accepted, indicate your interest by visiting the campus, going on a campus tour, scheduling optional interviews, and personally reaching out to the appropriate admission representative.
Other ways you can show your interest include reaching out to professors in relevant majors, applying early decision, following the school on social media channels, and participating in the school’s online seminars for prospective students.
If you do reach out to school professionals, be they professors or admission officers, be sure you practice proper email etiquette. To learn more about effective communication strategies, check out Veronica Freeman’s article on email etiquette in college.
Spend Time Developing Your College Essays
College essays are an extremely important part of the application process because they provide one of the best opportunities for you to sell yourself and convey who you are outside of grades and test scores. This is why you should spend plenty of time developing a unique essay that stands out from the rest of the crowd.
Before you begin writing, read the prompt and reflect on past experiences that are unique to your personal journey. Your goal should be to tell a personal, engaging story about something meaningful to you that also aligns with the essay prompt. Once you have an idea, begin writing with the intention of revising it into something more succinct later on. As you write and revise, get feedback on your essays from teachers and other trusted peers, then continue to edit and rewrite until you get it into a place you’re comfortable with.
Ask for Great Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation are important to admission officers because they reveal things about your character that grades and test scores cannot. This is why when you ask for recommendations, you want to ask people who can describe your skills, accomplishments, and personality with positivity and enthusiasm.
Consider school counselors, teachers, and/or employers that you have a close relationship with. Also, try to ask one of your teachers from junior year or a current teacher, as colleges often want a current academic perspective on you. If the teacher says yes, provide them with a list of achievements they can reference in the letter. Make sure to give your references at least one month before the deadline to complete and send letters. The earlier you ask, the better.
Manage Your Online Reputation
In the digital age, admission officers are increasingly checking out applicants’ social media presence to learn more about them and to look for red flags that might deter them from accepting the student. With this in mind, make sure your Facebook, Twitter, and/or LinkedIn accounts are free of content you wouldn’t want a college to see before you apply to the school. Also, you should Google yourself to ensure there’s nothing floating around on the internet that would make you look bad.
Seek Out Good Advice and Assistance
The college application process can be confusing and complicated, and it’s not a process you should take on by yourself. While you research colleges, develop a college list, prep for standardized tests, and finalize your applications, and make sure to get ongoing assistance from people familiar with the admission processes, such as counselors and teachers. You should also consult parents, friends, older siblings, or relatives that could help you answer questions related to college applications and admissions.