While college applications are not due until senior year, the road to college begins much sooner than many people think. There are things that can be done from very early ages to improve a student’s chances of acceptance, but here are three simple things students can do to stand out to college admissions boards.
1. Take challenging classes.
A strong academic record does not just mean good grades. Colleges look to see that students are taking challenging course loads, too. Parents, however, often wonder how many honors, AP, or IB courses their student should take. This is especially true of parents of rising sophomores, many of whom have their first shot at an AP class in tenth grade. There are a variety of factors to consider such as teacher placement recommendations, extracurricular commitments, the selectivity of target colleges, etc. If these factors are carefully considered and the student believes he or she can handle advanced concepts and heavier workloads, then taking advanced classes is one of the best ways to bolster a college application. Be aware, however, that you should not load up on advanced classes at the sacrifice of grades. While a “B” in AP World History would typically be viewed more favorably by an admissions panel than an “A” in World History, a “C” most likely would not.
Parents and students shouldn’t get too hung up on how many advanced classes a student takes. Colleges are aware that course offerings vary drastically across the nation. More than anything, they are looking to see that a student is challenging himself and making thoughtful course selections that will prepare him for college. That being said, many college admissions advisors recommend that students aiming for selective colleges take four or five AP classes in their high school careers.
Colleges do not like to see students take rigorous courses freshman through junior year and then “take it easy” during senior year. The reason they’re looking for advanced coursework is to determine a student’s readiness for the rigors of college. While it may be tempting for students to “chill” during their senior year, doing so can reflect negatively on them in the admissions process.
Finally, AP courses can help students qualify for scholarships. According to the College Board, over 30 percent of colleges and universities look at advanced classes when making scholarship decisions.
2. Strong letters of recommendation.
While students usually won’t request letters of recommendation until senior year, they can certainly begin thinking about whom they may ask and about cultivating relationships. A forgettable letter of recommendation won’t necessarily diminish a student’s chances of acceptance; however, a stellar recommendation can tip the scale in a student’s favor.
Often, students make the mistake of getting recommendations from distant influential and powerful acquaintances. To an admissions panel, these references make an application seem superficial. Instead, students should seek references from teachers, coaches, mentors, etc., with whom they have worked closely and recently.
Let’s say a student really connects with his ninth grade history teacher and meets with him for weekly lunches during freshman year to discuss current events, but he does not really maintain the relationship over the next three years. A reference from that ninth grade history teacher is not going to be as compelling as a reference from the student’s current AP Government teacher with whom the student recently met weekly for a month to revise a research paper. Even if the student’s “connection” with the AP teacher isn’t as strong as it was with the ninth grade teacher, admissions panels value references from people who have had more recent interaction with a student. It’s important that students ask for these recommendations early, giving whomever they choose at least several weeks’ notice.
3. Meaningful extracurricular activities.
Students and parents often misconstrue “extracurricular activities” to include only school-sponsored groups. However, extracurricular activities can be anything a student does that is not a high school course or paid job, though work experience is of interest. Colleges want to see that a student is committed to certain activities and that they have passions outside of academics.
The main point is that a student who dabbles in six after-school clubs, participates in a couple of sports seasons, and occasionally volunteers at his church’s food drive will not impress an admissions panel as much as a student who spends two hours after school twice per week building stage sets for the school’s theater productions. Students should do some soul-searching to find their passions and determine a way to transform those passions into an extracurricular activity.
There are various ways an applicant can stand out to a college admissions committee, but the one thing that nearly all have in common is planning ahead. This is not to say that freshmen should be taking SAT prep courses and seventh graders should be visiting college campuses, but high school students and their parents should have a good sense for the process of applying to college and the steps they should be taking each year. Aside from a student’s school’s career center, there is a great deal of information and support available to students and parents who need guidance in the process. For more information, please contact Educational Connections.