Applying to college is a fairly involved process, and one with no guarantees! Students and their families often ask us what steps they can take to improve their chances of college admission. Because it’s not as simple as one-two-three, below we’ve provided some college admission strategies you can use today to begin improving your chances for college admission.
Top Factors for College Admissions
Before we begin, we’d like to enumerate the top factors colleges consider when reviewing an application. What really matters most?
Your High School Grades + GPA
First and foremost, your academic record is the most important factor in an application review (barring any special admissions considerations like artistic talent or athletic ability). You’ll hear words like “rigor” and “challenge” tossed about in college admission conversations. What do these terms mean? Colleges are looking at the level of your coursework (honors, AP, IB) throughout all four years of high school, and for an upward trend in grades. They want to see evidence that you challenged yourself: If you took two AP or honors courses your junior year, then in your senior year, sign up for three or four! Remember, rigor and challenge are going to look very different from student to student – you (and your parents and guidance counselor) know best about what’s right for you. Regardless, you’ll want to do your best all four years of high school; don’t be afraid to push yourself appropriately.
SAT/ACT Test Scores
Test scores round out your academic record and will help improve your chances for college admission. A solid set of test scores is a good indicator of academic readiness, and if your score meets a college’s criteria (more on that below), you’ll want to share your scores through your college applications. Remember, test-optional doesn’t mean test blind – if you send your scores, they will be used and can further improve both your chances of admission and scholarship consideration.
Extracurricular activities refer to what you do when you’re not in the classroom, and include both school and outside clubs, athletics, independent research, hobbies, paid work, community service, religious involvement, summer enrichment, and even family responsibilities. Colleges aren’t looking for a breadth of activities; rather, they’re looking for depth of commitment through involvement in a few carefully chosen activities. Passionate about engineering? Get involved in your school’s robotics team or check out a summer engineering class at a local university. Interested in sports? Play for a team or volunteer for your town’s youth athletic program. Love theater? Audition for a school play or memorize a monologue. So many activities can be self-initiated – it just takes a little thought, creativity and diligence!
College Application Essay
Rounding out the top five factors for college admissions is the application essay. Most colleges will ask you to write one essay, called the personal statement, in which you tell a story about yourself and reflect on its meaning. A college essay takes time to write, but offers you the most freedom – you get to write about anything you choose, so as long as it’s about you! Many colleges will ask you to write more than one essay, and some additional college essay topics will include a college or major interest essay, why you want to attend the school you’re applying to, an extracurricular activity essay, or even another personal essay centralized on a topic or theme. Take your time and craft your essays carefully. Yes, colleges read them, and yes, they have become an increasingly important factor in determining your college admission chances!
Your Letters of Recommendation
Not every college asks for letters of recommendation, but for those that do, a stand-out letter of recommendation can improve your chances of admission. How do you go about getting one? First, you’ll want to ask a junior-year core academic teacher (one who teaches English, math, science, social sciences, or world languages) who knows you well. Reach out to your teachers, preferably at the end of junior year, but certainly right at the start of your senior one, and politely ask for a letter of recommendation. Provide a copy of your activities résumé along with a list of classroom highlights (a favorite project, perhaps, or your commitment to attending extra-help sessions). Be sure to thank teachers who write a recommendation. Don’t forget to reach out in a timely manner to your guidance counselor if he or she needs to provide one, too.
College Admissions Interview
Not every college requires, or even offers, the opportunity to interview, and many college “interviews” are informational, not evaluative. If you’re lucky enough to be presented with the opportunity to interview, whether with admissions staff or alumni, take advantage! In addition to sharing your enthusiasm for the college, you’ll be able to ask questions (be prepared with some good ones ahead of time!) and learn more about that school.
How Can I Determine My Odds of Getting Into College?
Now that you understand the most important factors in deciding college admission, you may be wondering what your chances are of getting admitted to a specific college. Remember our caveat: there are never any guarantees! But you can use the college’s admitted student profile to make a reasonable estimate of your chances of admission. Simply google “admitted student profile + college name,” and you’ll likely be directed to the college’s admissions page containing this information. Let’s consider some of the data you’ll see.
Compare Your GPA to Those of Admitted Students
The GPA reported at the college website represents that of the middle-50% of admitted applicants, and may or may not be weighted. Take a look at your own GPA and see how it stacks up to the school’s published mid-50% range. If it’s on the higher end of this range or above, your chances of admission are better than average – based on other factors, of course. Keep in mind that many colleges recalculate applicants’ GPAs to reflect only academic coursework, and will give higher consideration to a class schedule that has more honors, AP, and other higher-level courses.
Look at the Average Test Scores
Colleges will also report the mid-50% of SAT and ACT scores, so you can easily compare yours to the numbers reported at the school website. That comparison is a useful tool in deciding if you’ll go test-optional or not (if the school allows): if your score falls on the higher end of the mid-50% or above, definitely submit them!
Check the Acceptance Rates
Admit rates are another good data point to determine your chances for admission. Even if your GPA and test scores meet the mark for a particular college, you need to check its admit rate. Schools that admit 20% or fewer applicants are going to be “reach” schools for most applicants; ultra-selective colleges admitting fewer than 10% will be even more of a reach. While it’s perfectly fine to include several reach schools on your list, develop reasonable expectations about your likelihood of admission – be sure to have great target and safety schools where you can also see yourself happy and thriving as an undergraduate.
Four Tips for Improving Your Chance of College Admission
So, now that you know the most important factors of college admission and how to use the admitted student profile in determining your odds of getting in, how can you go about improving your chances? Take advantage of our four great tips right now!
1. Focus on Your Grades and SAT/ACT Scores
Your academic record is the most important factor in determining your admissibility to college, so now is the time to make sure your grades are where they need to be! Look over your most recent report card, or better yet, your complete high school academic record (most high schools give you access to a student portal where you can view an online version of your transcript, your cumulative GPA, class rank, and your graduation requirements). Identify any grade deficiencies. Did you know that many school districts will allow you to retake a class for which you received a D or F? Are you a little shaky in math, or perhaps English class isn’t your strength? Seek out extra help: find a peer tutor or hire an expert tutor. Same with your SAT or ACT scores: as soon as you can, register for an upcoming test, and prepare for it! Seniors, it isn’t too late, and juniors, it’s never too early. Remedy any academic weaknesses now to improve your college admission chances.
2. Seek Help When You Need It
Never be afraid to ask for help, whether it’s for a class, a standardized test, or help with your college applications. As we noted above, college applications take time and have multiple parts. Are you stuck on an essay or having trouble creating your college list? Ask for help! You can speak with a guidance counselor, a teacher, a tutor, or an educational consultant. Don’t forget that a college’s own admissions office can also answer many questions. That’s what they’re there for!
3. Work to Make Connections and Get Great Letters of Recommendation
In addition to focusing on grades, test scores, and applications, you can also work on obtaining great letters of recommendation. How? Juniors, think about your upcoming schedule and think about a few ways you can stand out in the classroom. Can you offer to tutor your peers or assist your teacher with classroom duties? If you’ve been on the shyer side throughout your high school career, assert yourself by speaking up more frequently in class. Plan on attending extra-help sessions when needed or even participating in a club for which your teacher is the faculty advisor. If you have aspirations of majoring in STEM fields, connect with a math or science teacher early on your junior year. Seniors, look back on your junior year schedule and consider which teacher/s knew you best. In which class did you feel you had the most impact? If you haven’t asked a teacher for a letter of recommendation, do so as soon as you can, preferably by the first week back in school.
4. Apply Early
Finally, one very important step you can take to improve your chances of admission is to apply early! Many colleges offer non-binding early action plans – take advantage of these to improve your chances of admission. Know that a school is your top choice? Talk to your parents about its binding early decision plan, which will further improve your chances of admission. Don’t forget, if admitted Early Decision, you will have to immediately withdraw all other applications and accept that school’s admissions offer. Even if a school doesn’t offer an early deadline, submit your applications sooner than later. For colleges with rolling admission, you will often get a decision sooner than you expected.
Determining your college admissions chances doesn’t have to be a mystery, and there are plenty of steps you can take right now to start improving your chances of admission! Need some help? Check out our complete guide to applying to college for more tips on how to navigate the process or give us a call to get started.