If this is referring to academics, then we have some tips! Many schools have policies that allow students to take classes and drop them without the drop appearing on the transcript. Take advantage of these time periods and get a true sense of whether a specific class is too challenging or easy. If this question is referring to the application and essay, put aside plenty of time for revisions. Time will allow for the creation of unique ideas that will highlight who you are. Don’t set the essay off for the night before the application deadline!
Secure Strong Letters of Recommendation
Letters of recommendation hold a lot of significance because they reveal aspects of your character that your grades and test scores can’t. This is why you should aim to ask people who can describe your skills, accomplishments, and attitude with positivity and enthusiasm.
Students should apply to a variety of schools, including safety, match, and reach schools. Your high school guidance counselor can help you put together a list of potential schools for which you meet or exceed all necessary criteria for admission. These will be your matches and safeties, meaning you have a solid chance of acceptance.
Once you’ve done that, you can start thinking about reach schools, or institutions you’re less likely to get into. Note that some colleges are reach schools for all students, including the Ivy League and top-tier private universities like Stanford.
Opt for an Early Admission Plan
Both plans require you to apply early, usually sometime in November. You can expect to receive an admission decision earlier as well, typically in December. Whereas early decision is a binding agreement — meaning you are committing to attend that institution should you get admitted — early action does not bind you to a single school.
Admissions officers are increasingly checking applicants’ social media presence to learn more about them and to look for red flags that might deter them from extending an acceptance. Make sure your Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and LinkedIn accounts are free of content you wouldn’t want colleges to see while you’re applying.
“It is important to have an appropriate email address, and social media accounts should be [set to] private,” advised Skeldon. You should also search your name on Google to ensure there’s nothing floating around online that could reflect negatively on you.
How do colleges evaluate applicants?
The college application evaluation process is reliant on many factors. First, know that you are not evaluated in a vacuum. You are compared to your peers. For example, your GPA matters much less than your GPA compared to the rest of your class. The admission officers are not only looking at what you offer, but also why you deserve the spot over someone else.
Something that a lot of students overlook is the counselor evaluation. Your Guidance Counselor will play a large role in vouching for your efforts and your ability to successfully complete high level courses.
Now you may be wondering what level of course you should be taking. The answer to this is dependent on what field you want to pursue. A career in biomedicine, for example, should be complemented with courses such as AP biology.
“Depending upon the level of school you’re looking at, making sure that, for instance, if you’re applying for any competitive stem program (Computer Science, Engineering, Math, Biology) basically that you’ve had your sciences all the way through the AP level.”
Remember, because most Guidance Counselors are overworked and have to oversee too many students, don’t expect them to go out of their way to get to know you. Take the initiative to create a relationship with your counselor so that they can write a genuinely positive letter of recommendation for you when the time comes.
What can I do to increase my chances of getting into college?
Differentiating yourself from others is what’s going to make you stand out. And that doesn’t mean having a higher GPA. Saying that you should try your best at everything is definitely general advice, so we’ll try to break things down further.
Starting with standardized tests, colleges understand that the pandemic has made test taking a challenge. Many colleges have switched to test optional so not having a score is not a deal breaker. Colleges understand!
What’s more important is extracurriculars and the rigor of your courses. Are you participating in clubs for long periods of time and displaying some sort of passion? Do you take classes that connect with the field you want to pursue and challenge you to perform at your best? These are things you want to focus on.
Ultimately, the best way to increase your chances of getting into college is to be yourself! It may sound silly, but this is critical. If you are being evaluated in comparison to other students, the best way to stand out is to pursue your personal interests as deeply as possible instead of trying to replicate what “successful” students have done in the past.
Before we dive in, I need to get a few things out of the way. My advice in this article is blunt and pragmatic, and I have strong opinions. Even if one of my points rubs you the wrong way, I don’t want one bad apple to spoil the bunch—you might end up ignoring advice that would otherwise be helpful. So let me clear up some common misconceptions about what I’m saying.
First of all, it’s completely OK if you don’t go to Harvard. I wish I were joking about having to tell people this. Attending Harvard or Yale or Stanford doesn’t guarantee you success in life. Lots of students who go to these schools end up aimless, and many more who don’t go to top schools end up accomplishing a lot.
More than anything, your success in life is up to you—not your environment or factors out of your control. The school you go to cannot guarantee your own success. So whether you get into a top school or not, it’s only the beginning of a long road, and what happens during your journey is almost entirely up to you. (That said, I believe going to a top school gives you huge advantages, particularly in the availability of resources and strength of the community. If I had to do it all over, I would have 100% gone to Harvard again. More on this later.)
I don’t believe that getting into a top school like Stanford or Duke should be the singular goal of high school students. Happiness and fulfillment are really important and are rarely taken seriously enough. Luckily, with the approach to admissions that I explain below, you’ll be able to explore your passions while also building a strong application.
This article is a guide to admissions to the top schools in the country. To be explicit, I include in this the most selective schools in the Ivy League (consisting of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia) as well as Stanford, MIT, Duke, and Caltech. Generally speaking, these are the top 10 schools according to US News and have admissions rates below 10%. Following this guide is really helpful for these ultra-selective schools and important for raising your chances of admission.
There’s a second group of high-quality schools for which admissions is relatively easier (Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Northwestern, Washington University in St. Louis, Cornell, Brown, Notre Dame, Vanderbilt, Rice, UC Berkeley—ranked #11-18 in US News). If these are your target schools and you follow the advice in this guide, you will absolutely blow away admissions at this latter group and get accepted to every one of them. Big claims, I know, but I stand by my advice here—you’ll see.
More than a guide on how to get into Stanford or MIT, this is really a guide on how to explore your passion and structure your life around it. I believe that getting into schools is really just a positive consequence of doing things you’re sincerely interested in. Keep this in mind as you read on. As you’ll see, trying to do things only for the sake of getting into a top school can be counterproductive and burdensome.
Throughout this article, I’m going to sound a bit elitist. For example, I’m going to refer to what it takes for you to be “world class” and what it means to be “mediocre.” This might sound distasteful, as it seems like I’m judging some efforts to be more worthwhile than others. Try not to be turned off by this. Michael Phelps is a world-class swimmer, and I am a terribly mediocre one. Facts are facts, and I’m just presenting how admissions officers will think about comparing you with the 30,000 other applicants from the rest of the world.
I currently run a company called PrepScholar. We create online SAT/ACT prep programs that adapt to your strengths and weaknesses. I believe we’ve created the best prep program available, and if you want to raise your SAT/ACT score, I encourage you to check us out.
I want to emphasize, though, that you do not need to buy a prep program to get a great SAT or ACT score. Moreover, the advice in this guide has little to do with my company. But if you’re aren’t sure what to study and agree with our unique approach to test prep, our program may be a great fit for you.
Lastly, this article is not a reductionist magic guide on how to get into Stanford or MIT. There are no easy hidden tricks or shortcuts. There is no sequence of steps you can follow to guarantee your personal success. It takes a lot of hard work, passion, and some luck.
But if it weren’t hard, then getting into these schools wouldn’t be such a valuable accomplishment. Most students who read this guide won’t be able to implement it fully, but you should at least take key elements from it to change how you view your college admissions path.
With all that said, I hope you can take what I say below seriously and learn a lot about how colleges think about admissions. If you disagree with anything fundamental below, let me know in a comment. I strongly believe in what I’m saying, and most of my friends and colleagues who went to top schools would agree with this guide, too.
Takeaways: What Looks Good on a College Application
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.
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