How to Get Accepted into College 101
- January 9, 2017
- Posted by: Andrew Rombach
- Category: Advice for Students
Every year, millions of young adults move far away (or close to home) to attend college. For many people, it is the next step in the American education system, and it is often a necessary one for many individuals with high aspirations for their career.
There is another side to college that somewhat defines the overall experience. For instance, aside from developing a career path, it is a time and place for trying new things, meeting new people, and doing stuff you may never get a chance to ever do again in your life. Needless to say, college is a ton of fun, and it can lead to memories that last for a lifetime.
College. All of it sounds like a dream, and to a high school student, that is all it really is… for now. For none of these opportunities, experiences, and environments can become reality to a high school graduate without passing their first college test ever: the acceptance process.
Getting accepted into college is not easy, and there are several important things to keep in mind while attending high school. Oftentimes, college applicants are discouraged by their prospects after hearing about demographic or networking influences. Despite all this, there are ways to increase your marketability as a college prospect that have absolutely nothing to do with affirmative action, knowing the right people, or anything controversial that seems especially prevalent today.
This course focuses on several important considerations that colleges make when reviewing a typical college applicant out of high school; additionally, it covers how prospective students can improve in these categories in order to increase their chances of acceptance. Read on to see what you need to do in order to make yourself the perfect college candidate.
Focus on Grade Point Average
One of the first and foremost thoughts that comes to mind when thinking about college acceptance is Grade Point Average, or GPA. GPA is a number that represents the average cumulative grades of all classes taken; you could say it measures academic performance. It is measured on a scale of 0.0 to 4.0 with 4.0 meaning perfect grades. GPA can be measured over just a semester, or it can be measured over an entire high school career (known as cumulative GPA). Cumulative GPA is the important benchmark in this scenario.
Many colleges look at cumulative GPA first when reviewing applicants since it provides a clear picture of overall academic performance. It is extremely important to have a high GPA because colleges want students who can succeed academically. There are two main influences on grade point average: grades and class difficulty. More details on these are to follow.
Grades influence GPA considerably which sounds extremely obvious, but it deserves a little discussion. Here is how the common GPA system works. Each letter grade is assigned a GPA value (A is 4.0, B is 3.0, C is 2.0, D is 1.0, and F is 0.0), and all final grade values at the end of a semester are averaged together to define a semester GPA. An example works best here. Let’s say you get 2 A’s, 2 B’s, and a C; your final semester GPA is 3.2 (a pretty good GPA!). In simple terms, the more A’s you get, the higher your GPA is going to be, and the more F’s you get, the lower your GPA is going to be.
Colleges take cumulative GPA into account when reviewing their applicants. Keep in mind that the college application process takes place around the midpoint of Senior year. This means that college applicants must rely on the first 3.5 years of their academic record in high school for their “application GPA” which is the cumulative GPA that colleges see for admissions.
Quite simply, this all means you have the best chance of acceptance by getting good grades from the beginning of Freshman year and onward! However, don’t lose hope if you tanked your first two years of high school because colleges take into account improvements in grades through Junior year. If you have questions about your GPA situation, then consult with your guidance counselor to get a better idea of where you stand academically in colleges’ eyes.
This is where GPA can get a bit tricky. Many high schools implement a weighted GPA system which takes into account class difficulty and rewards students for taking more advanced courses. Classes that are considered more advanced by high schools are given a numerical bonus towards GPA. Another example illustrates this concept. A B in a high level class may be awarded a 3.2 GPA value while the same grade in a low level course may be awarded a 3.0 GPA value. This system can lead to GPAs that are greater than a 4.0; for instance, some exemplary students could find themselves with a 4.5 GPA. A 4.5 GPA sounds ideal, but that may not be the case for the college admission process.
The influence of class difficulty sparks a bit of controversy. Most colleges utilize a 4.0 GPA scale, so having a 4.5 GPA translates to just a 4.0 GPA for a college admission board. Technically speaking, someone who aces lower level classes will have the same GPA in the college’s eyes as someone who succeeded in higher level courses. While this is technically true, most college applications require a transcript from your high school, or at the very least, they require course details. This means that colleges can take class difficulty into account while assessing GPA.
From one perspective, students should take more advanced courses in order to increase their chances of getting a higher GPA as well as recognition for taking harder classes. While this strategy can lead to an amazing resume for college applications, it also carries risk. Students in more advanced courses are more likely to fail, so some students are better off in intermediate or easier classes allowing them to boost their GPA. To say the least, it is a game of give and take. Consulting with your guidance counselor and parents is a great way to figure out which plan is the best for you.
Focus on Standardized Test Scores
While GPA in high school is important, there are other extremely impactful scores that appear on every college application: standardized test scores. There are countless standardized tests offered in the United States for just as many reasons and for every age group. The two most common tests for high school students to take in preparation for college applications are the SAT and the ACT.
The SAT is a specially designed college admissions test that gauges a high school student’s academic ability. For most colleges (not all, but most), taking the SAT is a necessity since it is instrumental during the admission process. Another common standardized test is the ACT which is taken into account by many college admission boards, but it is not as widely required like the SAT. Both are widely popular in the United States; in fact, the ACT just recently surpassed the SAT in participation. These tests differ in structure and scoring, but more details are to follow.
The 2016 SAT follows a simple structure and scoring system. There are three main sections with multiple choice questions: Reading and Writing, Math, and Essay (optional and not multiple choice). The range of possible scores for the reading/writing and the math sections are both 200 to 800; these two sections account for the final possible SAT score that ranges from 400 to 1600. Since the essay section is optional, essay results are reported and scored separately on a scale of 2 to 8 in three categories (essay section does NOT influence overall SAT score of 1600). 65 minutes are allotted for 52 questions in the reading section, 35 minutes for 44 questions in the writing and language sections, 80 minutes for 58 questions in the math section, and 50 minutes for 1 prompt in the optional essay section; this is a grand total of 180 minutes for 154 questions or 230 minutes with the essay included.
Colleges look for the highest SAT scores when considering new applicants, so a score of 1600 is ideal. While the essay used to be a required section, it is now optional and reported separately. Despite this, taking the essay section is highly recommended. Consider this, since it is an optional section, many students will stop taking it, so writing the essay already separates test takers from the pack. On top of this, skilled essay writing is a tough skill to come by in high school, so a good score in this section is especially valuable. Long story short, students should take the SAT very seriously because a high score is often a foot in the doorway to many prestigious colleges.
The ACT differs from the SAT in terms of structure and scoring, yet they are similar in many respects. There are five sections of multiple choice questions including English, Math, Reading, Science, and optional Writing (not multiple choice). The four mandatory sections are scored on a scale of 1 to 36; all four of these sections are averaged together to derive the composite, or overall, score. If the essay section is attempted, two different readers score the essay from 1 to 6 in four categories resulting in overall scores of 2-12. These scores are then scaled to 1-36 which stands on its own, separate from the other composite score. 45 minutes are allowed for 75 questions in the English section, 60 minutes are allotted for 60 questions in the Math section, 35 minutes for 40 questions in the Reading section, 35 minutes for 40 questions in the Science section, and 40 minutes for one optional essay prompt for a total of 215 minutes.
Like the SAT, colleges look for the highest ACT scores during the admission process, so a score of 36 is the goal. Also like the SAT, the writing section is encouraged since it can set test takers apart from the pack. The ACT is another valuable tool for any prospective college student. When used with the SAT, a highly attractive portfolio can be developed that will look great to any college admissions board.
So, you know that you need to perform well with the ACT and SAT. The question is how. Aside from paying attention in school, there are multiple ways to prepare for standardized tests, but the two most common ways include purchasing a specialized test prep booklet or taking a specialized test prep class. These two options offer the same sort of help, but they are simply presented in different fashions.
There are an essentially unlimited number of options available to anyone interested in a test prep book for both the SAT or ACT. There is a good rule of thumb to follow: find a book that offers multiple practice tests with answer keys for review and studying. Many of these books are harder than the actual test, so practicing with these can improve your chances of a higher score. Additionally, there are plenty of tips, tricks, and strategies in the pages to the reader’s benefit.
In addition to practice test booklets, there are plenty of classes that focus on standardized test preparation. These classes often go over strategies for test taking which can prove helpful in the moment. On top of this, they usually offer practice tests which are as useful as test prep booklets in that respect.
Sign Up for Extracurricular Activities
Let’s say you have a 4.0 GPA, scored a 1600 on the SAT, scored a 36 on the ACT, and got full marks on both writing sections. What else can you do to make yourself a better candidate for college? The answer is simple, yet it is more varied than any of the previous points mentioned so far. That answer is participating in extracurricular activities.
Just what is an extracurricular activity? Well, it is basically anything done in your spare time that isn’t school or homework. They can be anything from playing on the lacrosse team to joining the physics team. Tutoring in your spare time is a classic example, and community service is another prevalent option.
One main point is to show that you are diverse in your interests and not complacent as an individual. Why is this important? Well, colleges love selling themselves as environments that foster creativity, academic success, and anything interesting to the world. By participating in extracurricular activities, you can make a strong case that you are a driven individual that is willing to add value to a campus.
Another extremely important reason for taking on extracurricular activities is finding people to supply letters of recommendation. For many college applicants, letters of recommendation are extremely hard to provide. A perfect candidate for writing such a letter is a supervisor from an extracurricular activity.
There are two major divisions of extracurricular activities that seem to be especially prevalent to colleges: merit-based and community-based activities. The opportunities vary considerably from region to region and school to school, so a couple basic examples illustrate this point well.
Merit-Based Extracurricular Activities
A merit-based activity is anything that has to do with individual skill, most notably in the academic field. Joining the physics team is a perfect example. It shows that you enjoy Physics and have an interest in STEM-related fields. Someone who plans to major in Physics or Mechanical Engineering can make himself or herself appear extremely marketable to a college admissions board by getting involved in a related extracurricular activity.
On that note, choosing something that is related to a future career path is a great idea. It makes a strong case for an individual and adds credibility to an application. Picking an unrelated merit-based activity is still a good idea because it shows diversification and enthusiasm for many different things. Participating in a merit-based activity provides you the opportunity to earn a letter of recommendation from a supervisor with established credibility in an academic field.
Community-Based Extracurricular Activities
The other side to extracurricular activities has to do with giving back to the community (known in this course as a community-based extracurricular activity). A prime example of this would be volunteering as a tutor because it shows that you are competent enough to teach and care about others.
The main point of giving back to the community (aside from helping those in need) is to add personality to your college application. It shows that you are a real person with interests that can benefit others, and it shows that you are a proactive individual. In other words, colleges can see that you are not another robot looking for a degree! This is something that can easily be conveyed in a letter of recommendation from a community-based activity supervisor.
Nailing the Application Process
So, everything is all said and done, and you have an excellent resume for future college applications. What is your next step? That is easy! Start applying to colleges that catch your interest.
While it sounds easy, it can be overwhelming at first because there are so many colleges out there. The only way to get through it is to research consistently and often. A proactive approach is the best approach for college applications.
With that being said, the application process may seem pretty confusing, and you certainly do not want to fill out tons of individual applications for every college out there. Luckily, this is the 21st Century, and the internet has been around for some time. On top of this, there are extensive in-person resources at a high schooler’s fingertips. Check out a few more pieces of advice for the application process.
The Common Application
There are plenty of helpful online resources available to expedite the whole process; however, one in particular jumps to mind. The Common Application is a valuable online resource that lets you create just one general application for over 700 colleges, so you do not have to waste time by entering repetitive information. If there are any special requirements from a certain college, the Common App takes this into account and provides this information.
Aside from streamlining the application process, the Common App provides valuable resources. Just to name a few, it helps you search for colleges, provides online counseling, offers application advice, and offers advice for parents. It is one of the most helpful resources found online today, and many high school students rely on it to find their dream college. Ask your high school guidance counselor about the Common App if you are unsure about it.
Learn How to Write
One big piece of advice, learn how to write at the college level before applying to college. Having this skill is crucial. Many colleges require a written portion for their application because it provides valuable insight on an applicant, so it is quite possibly one of the most influential skills to have for any college application.
On top of this, excellent writing skills can set you apart in the SAT and ACT standardized tests which improves your college application considerably. For many people, being able to write coherently and effectively is the last piece of the puzzle. It can either be a barrier or a key to success in your college application process! Consult your guidance counselor for the best in-school course to learn written composition, or you can try to find an online course. The bottom line is to learn how to write!
Talk with your Counselor
Consulting with your guidance counselor has been repeatedly mentioned. Its importance cannot be understated. Counselors possess information and experience that gives them unique and practiced insight on the college admissions process. Talking to a guidance counselor is a big step in the college admissions process, and for many high schoolers, it is one of the first steps taken towards college applications.
Your guidance counselor is an excellent source of information. They can give you details on where you stand academically at your individual high school. They know your GPA, the GPA system, and your class schedule which gives them unique insight on your position as a college applicant. They can give personal recommendations for what sort of goals you should pursue with college in mind. They can cover some application basics as well as give you more details on specific college applications, and they can offer different helpful resources. Guidance counselors can provide all of this and more, so set up a meeting ASAP to discuss your future!