How to Get in to Your Dream College

Published: March 19, 2018, 11:43 a.m.

You’ve dreamed about this since you were old enough to cheer for their sports teams. You’ve imagined yourself enmeshed in the campus life you’ve seen pictures of online. You’ve talked to your friends and family about achieving this goal you’ve had for so long – being accepted to your dream college. But how do you do that? Sitting back wishing and hoping isn’t enough. Just because you have the school’s emblem drawn all over the cover of your school notebook, you know all the stats of their basketball team, or your closet is full of their school colors does not mean that you are an automatic shoe-in, given what is likely some very stiff acceptance competition. Dreams don’t generally come true from sitting back and waiting for them to happen – you have to take charge and make things happen! That includes preparing for success at your dream school: It takes thoughtful planning ahead of time. While there are no guarantees for acceptance to any particular school, there are some things you can do to give yourself an advantage over the competition. Here are some tips to help you increase your chances of making that dream come true.

The Academics

Grades Matter – Schools look at your transcripts, GPA, and test scores in determining whether or not you would be a good fit for their expectations. Generally speaking, colleges don’t want to have to babysit those who are unprepared for the rigors of college-level work, by offering remedial classes. In high school, take classes that will prepare you for the rigors of college – and excel at them! While you may have some hiccups in your transcript history (like that science class you earned a D in), that doesn’t necessarily mean your ship is sunk. But it does mean that you need to be aware of it and be ready to explain what happened and, more importantly, what you learned from the experience. So, you made it up in summer school and earned a B: great. But what did you learn as a result of having to retake the course? Have your time management skills improved? Do you better understand and appreciate the work required to write a complete lab report? Schools want to see that you are resilient and that you take every stumble as an opportunity to learn and grow. While there is usually an opportunity at some point in the application process to explain low grades, too many low grades cannot be excused or overlooked. This brings us to the topic of what kinds of classes appear on your transcript. There are conflicting views on whether it is better for students to take higher-level courses like Honors, AP, or IB and perhaps risk not getting all As, or whether it is better to take “easier” classes to keep a high GPA. Ultimately, the decision is yours. Challenging higher-level courses indicate something about your personality – that you are willing to work hard, to take risks, to challenge yourself; but not doing well in them could sink your GPA. Taking lower-level courses also says something about your academic drive, the value you place on education, and your personal push to learn. Balancing your course load in a way that will allow for both challenge and success is probably the best way to go. Test Scores Matter – As much as society doesn’t like the idea of “teaching to the test,” test scores matter. In both state or district testing, as well as national testing like the SAT or ACT, the scores matter. Many people experience test anxiety and, as a result of nerves and self-inflicted pressure to be perfect, may not test well. To help combat this, take as many practice tests as you can. Your high school may offer free or reduced cost opportunities to take the PSAT or other standardized tests. The more practice you get with them, the more comfortable you may feel and the easier you may find it to navigate through them. If test-taking really makes you nauseous, consider enrolling in test-taking support courses that will teach you hints and tips for the process. Sometimes there are even free workshops offered at local schools, libraries, or community centers. And take as many AP tests as you can; they are good practice for test-taking, and the credits you earn from the scores you receive may transfer to your school of choice and allow you to start with higher-level courses once you get there. Taking the test also demonstrates that you were serious about the studies and weren’t just taking the class so it would look good on your transcripts.

The Activities

Activities Help – Participation in clubs, activities, and other extracurricular events looks good on your academic resume, but there’s a balance to strike between  quantity and quality. Rather than attempting to join 30 different clubs, stick to several that are meaningful to you and that you enjoy participating in. Being in clubs and organizations that promote community volunteer work and allow you to “give back” shows a sense of social awareness and concern for others. Participation in one-day events or trying different types of clubs and organizations is good to help you find what you like, but once you find something, stick with it for an extended period of time. Jumping from activity to activity can make you appear flighty on your application and doesn’t speak to the dedication that you may have for a particular cause or organization. Look for Opportunities Everywhere - When you are trying to figure out where to spend your activities time, keep in mind that there is a variety of places and ways to get involved. Joining academic clubs and activities at school, academic societies or organizations like NHS or Scholar-Athletes, being part of a sports team (either at school or through the community), religious-based service organizations, or community-based programs and clubs are all great ways to be involved in the community and show that you are engaged with the world around you. Be an Active Participant at School – Being a part of your high school’s sports team shows dedication, time management, collaboration and a team-player mentality. But there are other ways to get involved at school as well. Try out for the school choir or music program. Studies show that students who are involved with music have higher math scores. Join the speech and debate team, which builds public speaking skills and effective argument structure and delivery, in addition to critical thinking skills. Become a part of the yearbook staff or join the journalism club and hone those language and communication skills (along with graphic design and computer skills in this digital age). Run for student council: You may not be elected President, but cabinet members have responsibilities and participation in student government shows that you can work collaboratively with others to achieve a common goal. If your school doesn’t offer a club or organization that you think would be beneficial to the students or community, take an active leadership role and start a club or local chapter on campus! Participation in clubs shows that you can both give and take direction and instruction and work collaboratively with others. Starting a club takes initiative and a sense of awareness that will help you stand out from the applicant crowd. Expand Your Horizons – Many of the activities you can participate in school offer another benefit: travel opportunities to participate in competitions. Even if it’s just travel across town, getting out of your bubble and broadening your horizons by participating in these types of experiences help you stand out from other applicants. Another great way to expand your understanding of the global community is by participating in a foreign exchange student program, either as a student traveler to another country or as a host family for a foreign student. Immersion in another country or hosting a student from another culture gives you unique experiences and understandings to share in your application process. Here are some student exchange program links for you to explore: (this site also has links to scholarship opportunities that can help make exchange programs more affordable!) Be an Active Member of Your Community – Giving of your time and actively participating in your community signal to schools that you will probably be an engaged and involved student on their campus. Whether volunteering at an elementary school, helping the little kids with their homework, at an animal shelter walking the dogs or cleaning out kennels, or feeding the homeless, a variety of volunteer experiences will help the admissions panel get a better sense of who you are and what is important to you. Organizations like Habitat for Humanity and American Red Cross, and local organizations all have volunteer opportunities for teens to get involved.

The Attitude

Ask What You Can Do for Them – Consider the strengths and talents that you can bring to your dream school campus. It’s not enough to be there soaking in the greatness of others – you must contribute greatness as well! What are some of your strengths or talents that you can share with others and lend to the school community to make it even greater? Think about adjectives that describe you and how those qualities would benefit the campus community. In your application process, take every opportunity to showcase and brag about the unique attributes that you bring. Have a Back-Up Plan – Yes, you have applied to your dream school, you can practically envision the set-up of your dorm room, the taste the cafeteria food, but…what if the school you long to attend isn’t as enthusiastic about inviting you to be a student? All is not lost, even if there is a rejection letter sent your way. Find out: Is there a waitlist? How long before you’ll know for sure? Can you transfer in after freshman year? What are the requirements to do so? If none of these are possibilities or if your love for this school quickly dissipates with the rejection, what is your backup plan? Whether it is applying to a second-choice school or taking a gap year to work or travel, you need to have other options in mind, just in case the unthinkable happens. Be Ready to Brag – Some people have a very difficult time writing about themselves in a positive way because they have been taught to be “humble” and not brag. Other people have a low self-esteem and genuinely struggle with finding positive aspects of themselves to share with others. Regardless, your college application requires a certain level of bragging – because if you’re not going to toot your own horn and explain to complete strangers what makes you special and unique and worth their consideration in attending their school who will? If you are having a difficult time coming up with an extensive list of adjectives that describe you, ask a trusted friend or family member to compile a list of words they think describe your personality and your accomplishments. Reminisce with others about experiences you’ve had or things you’ve done that maybe you haven’t thought about or considered in quite some time, but which were impactful moments in your life and could lend themselves to strong application essays. Who to Help You Brag – Most college applications will ask for letters of recommendation in addition to your application. These letters of recommendation should be written by people who really know you and can speak to your great qualities. A teacher who still has to check the seating chart to be certain of your name is probably not going to be able to write the most glowing recommendation. Letters of recommendation should be written by people who can provide specific examples of things you have done or how they have seen your characteristics at work. Asking a teacher or counselor who is overwhelmed by other commitments, who doesn’t really know you or your background, is not a good choice to write your letter. Consider asking managers at work, coaches, or academic advisors to write your letter. Do not pick a family member, even if you “worked” for them by babysitting or helping in the summer. You want non-familial people who can be objective but who respect and admire you enough to write a strong letter of recommendation. Watch your Social Media Activity – Think what you tweet to your friends or post on Facebook stays within friendly territory? Not so much. Everything you post, every comment you make, is accessible to school admissions officers if it is on a public social media platform. As with employers these days, admissions officers can and do check the social media accounts of prospective students. And if they don’t like what they see, they may not choose to invite you to be a part of their school. So be smart about what you post, both words and pictures. Be careful how and to what you reply and comment on – Big Brother may be watching! This link will share with you some of the warnings about the impact your social media presence can have on your chances for admission. Let Your Creativity Shine – Have you heard about the high school student who wrote her application essay on the effects of Costco on her life? It was brilliantly creative and wildly imaginative and allowed her to stand out from the competition. It also helped gain her acceptance to five Ivy League schools. So be creative in your approach to your application essays! Consider the thousands of commonplace responses admissions officers must read through and then think outside the box. Allow your personality to come through. But never, ever, lie on your application. Plan Ahead – Despite what you might think, your best writing comes when there is time to reread and revise. Don’t wait until the last minute. After you write your application essays and paragraphs, let them sit and marinate for at least 24 hours, then look at them again with a fresh and critical eye. Take your time filling out applications; don’t try to do 5 in one night. They are long and tend to be pretty boring and if you’re not your sharpest self when filling them out, you may miss something important. For application essays, make sure that each one is tailored to the school to which you are applying. Use specific references to the school to show that you’ve done your homework and researched what the school has to offer and how you are going to take advantage of those offerings. Also, apply for every scholarship available – it gives you practice writing and may earn you money as well. There are thousands of scholarship opportunities out there, so do some legwork and find ones that apply to you. Don’t forget about local and community-based scholarships. The national ones may have hundreds of thousands of students vying for them, but with scholarships offered through your high school or community, the applicant pool drops significantly. Some scholarships can even be applied for before you are a senior, so you don’t have to wait and be burdened by all of them at once – check out what’s available to you to apply to as a freshman, sophomore, or junior. Remember Your Audience – When you write your application essays and writing tasks, remember your audience. The admissions officers are not your pals. They are educated people representing institutions of higher learning. That doesn’t mean that you should use the thesaurus app with every word, but do proofread your work and see where you can substitute more elevated language that demonstrates you are a thoughtful, educated person who would be an asset to this school. Keep Your Eye on the Prize - It can be tiring towards the end of your high school journey. You’ve spent 12 or more years working hard, cramming for tests, preparing reports, and the end is so close. But your senior year is not the time to kick back and coast. Although many students see their senior year as a months-long party, enjoying all of the perks and privileges that tend to come along with being a senior, it is important to keep challenging yourself and to not slack off or pick up poor study habits. Stay strong! Don’t give in to the peer pressure and drama that can get you off-track and derail the success and hard work you’ve put in so far. Take a full load of academic classes, even in your senior year. Or, if you’re not taking a full load of classes, make sure that you are using that extra time working a part-time job or participating in community events and activities that will show you are a compassionate, involved member of your community. Commitments to responsibilities both in and out of school impress admissions officers. There is a LOT to balance and keep track of in high school. However, if you can fit in a part-time job or you have passions or hobbies, make sure that you are using your time wisely and in a way that will be advantageous to you. Playing video games all night in the basement may be fun, and, if you are applying to a computer graphics or gaming program might be very appropriate. For the average college applicant, however, this is not a productive use of time. You should balance work and play and relaxation, but make sure that there is a balance. In Conclusion… With some hard work and focus, admission to your dream school is not out of the realm of possibility. Take into consideration the advice provided here and continue to do some more research on your own about hints and tips to help ensure your success. You CAN do this, but it will take work on your part. So, you can make excuses or you can make it happen! Dream big and best of luck!