How to Get Into College

12:13 PM

Click-bait warning: if you’re a rising senior looking to craft the perfect app, this won’t give you the answers that you’re looking for.

By academics editor, Diana Meza


There’s a common misconception that college applications are a senior year issue. It’s not that an expertly crafted personal statement can’t outshine consistently low grades and weak extracurriculars, but that rarely happens.

The reality is that colleges aren’t only looking for someone who can take his or her experiences and mold them into the perfect story of resilience or creativity or passion. They’re looking for students who have set and achieved goals, who can tackle rigorous academic material and come out even stronger. They’re looking for someone who will thrive at their school, and to become that person, you must start working from the beginning of high school.

For those of you who haven’t yet seen a college application, here’s the Common Application broken down and some steps that you can take now


Grades 

Good grades undoubtedly boost you in the admissions process, and they should be one of your top focuses through every year of school. If you maintain strong grades from freshman to junior year, you can already have a strong application senior year before even starting on any essays. 

Take on AP or Honors courses in fields that interest you and study a lot! Whenever you’re confused, don’t be afraid to seek out tutoring with peers, teachers, or other professionals. (Tutoring services are offered at all schools, but it’s up to you to find them!) 


10 Activities 

The Common App asks for up to 10 extracurricular activities. Here’s where you want to showcase evidence of commitment and leadership. 

During your freshman year, it’s good to explore different clubs, but try to stick to only a few by the end of the year. You don’t need to join the more popular clubs or those that your friends are in, but rather, focus on building up your clubs and creating real change. It’s not about WHICH activities you’re a part of, it’s about what you DO in those activities. 

It’s okay if you don’t have 10 activities that you’re truly committed to. You can also add summer programs and internships as activities. 


Awards 

If your school gives honor roll or similar academic awards, strive to get them! 

Many schools have AP programs (ex. Capstone, AP+PLTW, etc.) which will reward you at the end. Talk to your counselor about these programs! 

Some other ways of getting awards are through competitions. These can be MESA engineering competitions, FRC robotics, National History Day, decathlons, musical competitions, sports, etc. Competitions seem intimidating at first, but they tend to be very accessible for everyone. 

*Major tip: document all of your activities and awards on a doc starting freshman year so that you can look back senior year and easily compile your lists of activities and awards.


Recommendations 

This also isn’t something that you need to stress about. As long as you’re a respectful, active student in your classes, your teachers will like you. 

If you’re in charge of a club, try to get close with the club advisor (if he/she is a teacher). 

If you already have a field/major in mind, try to get close with teachers of a related subject (ex. some engineering schools ask for recommendations specifically from math and science teachers). 

Tips about asking: 

  • Always ask for recommendations at least 2 weeks before the deadline and say THANK YOU. It’s not part of their job to write your recommendation. 
  • Give your recommender supplementary materials (i.e., a resume/personal statement/short responses detailing your background, motivation, interests, and career goals). It’s always good to give the recommender more opportunities to brag about you! 

What you should worry about your junior/senior year

Standardized Tests 

You can actually prep a little for the SAT as a kid. Constantly reading books can REALLY help you on the SAT reading section. You can read novels, nonfiction, or anything else that interests you! 

You can start taking the SAT when you’re a freshman, but really, taking it in junior year is fine. SAT prep books and Khan Academy can help you improve the areas that you struggled on during your first attempt. 

SAT subject tests are NOT as important as the actual SAT, so don’t stress about them too much.


Personal Statement/Essays 

This is really the only part of college apps that you need to worry about your senior year. 

I’ll be posting a little guide to writing college essays soon, but the most important thing is to start EARLY. 

*Major tip: Apply to fly-ins!! 

Most privates have fly-in programs which open their applications in the summer after junior year and occur in the fall of senior year. 

Fly-ins are focused on underrepresented, low income, and/or first-generation students, so if you fall into any of those categories, you’re more likely to be accepted. If you attend a school’s fly-in program, you usually have ~70-90% chance of being accepted into the school (even if it’s really prestigious)! 

If you get to senior year and some parts are lacking, you can definitely work hard to supplement other parts instead, but make it your goal to demonstrate strengths in all the elements of your application. And if you have friends or siblings in middle school or high school, let them know that if they start organizing themselves now, senior year apps can be a breeze.

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