Not too long ago, our man Leman here heard a great speech by an MIT representative at his local American Legion’s Buckeye Boys State. And it got him fired up! Here are some of his key takeaways—the tips he learned from the admission representative and his own advice for high school students embarking on the college journey.
Imagine you’re on a long road trip. The trip starts on one large interstate highway. About halfway into your trip, people begin suggesting alternate routes. Now there are decisions that have to be made: the large highways are dependable, but a smaller highway may be quicker, and the scenic country route is the most satisfying. Each town you stop at, everyone has some advice: eat at a certain restaurant, get cheap gas in a small town, avoid certain roads that get busy at in the afternoon, use a GPS, trust your gut, do not be late, enjoy the journey. A trip like this seems easy at the start, but, as time goes on, it can become complex, especially with so many people weighing in. That’s why having your own individualized plan will help you reach your destination the way you want. As you might’ve guessed, this is true for your college search as well as road trips.
Freshman year of high school, college isn’t on many people’s minds. It’s a new territory, and it takes everyone some time to adjust. While colleges understand the challenges of going through high school (I have been told that grades that have improved over the years are just as good as consistently high grades), it is best to get on one’s feet as quickly as possible.
The first step in preparing for college is to take a variety of classes and to do well in them. In particular, the core subjects—math, science, English, social studies—are the best classes to take beyond what is required. A variety of classes, not just in the subject area you plan on turning into a career, will help make you well rounded. Also, taking the most challenging classes you can (while still being able to sleep) is the best preparation for standardized tests and college classes. While taking these classes, many student’s grades fall slightly below what they want or were able to get in middle school—this is not something to worry about.
While it’s true that colleges take GPA very seriously, the difficulty of the classes is also a big factor. Getting a 4.0 looks good, but a 3.75 along with challenging courses will really show colleges you are a serious student who is willing to take on challenges. If your school does not offer very many upper-level classes (AP and IB in particular), that does not mean it is necessary to move to another school to have a competitive course schedule; taking SAT subject tests (and doing well on them) shows intelligence and hard work too. And when it comes to these tests, it is important to remember that no student is so good that they do not need to prepare. There are numerous resources for every standardized test.
Another common concern is class rank. Many colleges will not even ask for it and those that do will use it context with your school. For example, being 50th in a class of 100 is much different than being 50th in a class of 4,000. Likewise, being in the top 10% of your class is considered differently at a highly competitive college compared to a not-so-selective college.
Grades and the difficulty of your classes are probably the most important things in your applications, but, when choosing between two applicants with similar academics, outside activities are very important. Colleges want smart and interesting people. Many students participate in extracurriculars, but not many of them are extremely dedicated or willing to take on leadership roles. Being exceedingly talented in one area, such as athletics, may land you some large scholarships; however, to admission staff, being a dedicated football player is equal to being a dedicated pianist. If your favorite extracurricular activity/biggest skill isn’t available at your high school, there are two options: look for it in your community or make your own group! Community often provides students with more opportunities (and responsibilities) for leadership. And starting a new group, though difficult, shows incredible dedication. Whatever the activity is, leadership and dedication are both details admission counselors will consider. Likewise, an activity you have done since you were young is better than dabbling in various activities—it’s about depth, not breadth. The point of these activities is to build character and make you a person that colleges want, all while doing the things you love to do.
The most important piece of advice that I have learned regarding the college admission process is that you are not applying to college; your application file is. Meaning you won’t be there in person, so it all comes down to the application you put together. Do not sell yourself short in an attempt to be modest and humble. While it is easy to be critical of yourself, most people find it awkward to try to describe themselves and their accomplishments in an accurate, positive way. Look back at how far you have come already and talk to people you know you well.
Finding the best college path is truly a personal task, but, with the right tools and a plan, it can be a fun ride with a wonderful destination.