The college admissions world can be mysterious.
On one side there are students and families seeking the best fit, an education that will hopefully launch a brilliant future. On the other side, colleges may have limited seats available, institutional priorities and opaque algorithms that factor into admissions decisions.
But college admissions pros urge students not to panic. Here are nine strategies to solve the mystery of how to get into college.
Get an Early Start and Finish High School Strong
Colleges want to see that you’ve focused from the start on getting the best possible education your high school has to offer. “You really need a four-year plan,” says Kat Cohen, founder and CEO of college admissions consulting firm IvyWise. She suggests that students start thinking about college applications as early as eighth grade. “High school shouldn’t just happen to you. You need to proactively make the most of your time there.”
If a student took a while to get on track, there’s still time. Colleges like to see that a student is on an upward trajectory where they show steady improvement, particularly during their junior and senior years, says Connie Livingston, lead counselor at college admissions consulting firm Empowerly.
“If there’s improvement, if there’s growth, that’s always a positive,” says Livingston, who worked in admissions at Brown University for 14 years.
Challenge Yourself Responsibly
Admissions officers emphasize overall high school GPA, grades in Advanced Placement or other college-prep classes, a rigorous curriculum and a student’s writing submission or personal essay. Those are the top factors for admissions, according to a 2019 report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
Students should take as many challenging courses as they can manage, says Greg Roberts, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia. These courses serve as “excellent predictors of success,” he says. It’s important to find the appropriate mix, though.
“There’s a balance here — trying to encourage students to take classes that they’re interested in that will challenge them and prepare them, but also encourage them to pursue things that they enjoy as opposed to pursuing things because they think that’s what colleges want to see,” Roberts says.
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Don’t Just Join Clubs, Make Your Experiences Count
When assembling an incoming class, colleges are looking for a well-rounded group of students with their own unique interests. The football player, poet and mathematician all have something to offer and help colleges maintain diverse student bodies.
“Students who make it clear what roles they will fulfill throughout their application will be affirmed because admissions officers will be able to gauge exactly what kind of impact they will have on campus,” Cohen says.
If students are tasked with work or family responsibilities that preclude them from joining clubs, consider showcasing those, says Seth Allen, vice president for strategy and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College in California.
“Ultimately, what matters most is that your experiences are helping to transform you in positive ways and teaching you valuable lessons and habits that will shape you far beyond the college admissions process,” he says. “Each experience is an opportunity to seize.”
Students should consider getting involved with extracurricular activities as early as their freshman year.
“If you wait until junior year or senior year, there won’t be any opportunities for leadership positions,” Livingston says. “You won’t have established that depth of commitment to particular extracurriculars. Freshman year is a great time to start.”
Stay Organized While Applying
Once students have applied to college, it’s vital they stay organized, especially if they have applied to multiple colleges, Roberts says.
He recommends that students and parents create a spreadsheet that organizes deadlines and admission requirements. It’s important not to procrastinate on this.
“If you have a big test and you wait until the night before to study for it, that puts a lot of pressure on you and you’re not going to do as good of a job, most likely,” Roberts says. “It’s the same thing when applying to colleges. But if you spread it out, you start a few months earlier, and you chip away, it seems to me that it’s a little easier.”
Keep Your College List Balanced
Students should create a list of desired colleges that include a certain number of “safety schools, target schools, reach schools and high-reach schools,” Livingston says.
“I always tell students, you should be thrilled to attend any of these schools on your list, including your safeties,” she says. “They shouldn’t be on your list if you don’t want to attend them. So make sure you’re doing your research, you’re really loving the school and you could see yourself there.”
Take an In-Person or Virtual College Tour
Visiting colleges can help students determine which schools to apply to. Cohen says it “isn’t unusual or ill-advised” to apply to a dozen colleges, but students should do so strategically.
“In order to come up with this balanced list of authentic best-fit schools, students need to devote a lot of time and energy to their college search. Explore a variety of options through university webpages, tours and college fairs, take the time to pinpoint what matters most to you and learn which schools will match these preferences,” Cohen says.
Making a college visit can also signal to schools that a student has serious interest in attending. In-person visits might not be feasible for every student, however, and colleges recognize that. In recent years, and particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic began, many schools have started offering virtual tours and more virtual information sessions.
Some colleges track participation in these sessions through what’s called “demonstrated interest,” Livingston says. Students must register through an account they created when starting their application. When applications are reviewed, a student who has shown continued interest in the school might receive a leg up on another student who hasn’t.
Admit Challenges in Your Personal Essay
Students don’t need a perfect record to get into their dream school. They must, however, provide an explanation for any significant blip.
Admissions officers are especially aware of the challenges that the pandemic brought upon students. They understand that there might be some speed bumps in a student’s application. Still, some students may feel anxious about how their struggles will be viewed.
Personal statements, essays and letters of recommendation help admissions officers get a holistic view of the student and understand them better as a person, Livingston says.
Each piece of the application is a way for students to “control their own narrative,” says Allen.
Recalling essays she read while an admissions counselor at Brown, Livingston says it was the ones that included personal stories that stood out to her over others. Most admissions officers are more interested in the story behind the applicant than just a list of grades and accomplishments, she says.
“That’s what they really want. They want to know about who you are as a person,” she says. “Your personality, your unique experiences, your background, your interests — that is where students are really able to stand out in the application process.”
Let the Process Play Out
Once students have applied to college, it can be hard to wait for a decision. Students can remove some of that anxiety by paying attention to each school’s decision notification dates.
Many schools create an application portal that provides updates on a student’s application status and any parts that might be missing. While it can be difficult to be patient, Livingston says parents and students should trust that those updates are accurate and resist the urge to continuously follow up with admissions offices.
“I feel like the more a student and family can manage those expectations on their own and not overly communicate with admissions offices, the better,” she says. “They are completely inundated during the application season. Being a pen pal to an admission officer is not a good thing in most cases.”
Work the Waitlist
High schoolers aren’t the only ones who have to deal with unpredictability. According to NACAC, students are applying to more schools, meaning colleges can’t predict how many students will enroll after being admitted. This uncertainty has prompted colleges to be more strategic about using the waitlist, taking a number of students from it in order to improve yield rates.
This is an appropriate time to be in more regular communication with admissions offices, Livingston says. Admissions officers want to admit students who are qualified but also have expressed a deep interest in attending that school. If you’ve been waitlisted, she recommends staying in touch with the admissions office and making clear that you’ll attend if you’re accepted.
“Admissions officers want to finish up that process as fast as possible, so if there’s a student on the waitlist who is eager to come and they admit that student, there is a good chance they will come,” which makes things easier, Livingston says.
Don’t view being put on a waitlist “as a polite denial,” Peter Van Buskirk, founder and president of college admissions counseling service Best College Fit, wrote in an email. “As colleges assemble their entering classes, the percentage of accepted students who will enroll becomes important to their calculations.” Admissions officers may put good candidates on the waitlist so they can determine who really wants to come and enroll students at a higher rate, he says.
Applying early can boost a student’s odds, Cohen says, noting that “it is not uncommon for colleges to admit enough early applicants to fill at least half of their class seats for the year.”
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Update 08/09/22: This story was previously published and has been updated with new information.