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How to Ace a College Application

Help your favorite high school student get college-ready with this guide to what college admissions teams look for in an application.

There’s a great deal of misinformation regarding exactly what’s important—and what’s not—when it comes time for high school students to apply to college. The following is a definitive list, in order of importance, of what you already know colleges consider when making admissions decisions—but with the most up-to-date insider info you need to know this year.

Good Grades in Rigorous Courses

This criterion is by far the most important: College admissions professionals want to know which students can succeed at their school. If a student has taken Advanced Placement (AP) and honors courses in high school, and has done well, he or she will be more likely to succeed in college. The more selective a college, the more likely its admissions team is to prefer a rigorous course load and a strong GPA.  

SAT/ACT Scores

Most schools (about 70%) are now test optional. That doesn’t mean, however, that your child should not take them. I recommend that most students take one of these exams at least twice, perhaps three times. (The tests are very different, and many schools will accept either.) Scoring well will not only boost your child’s application, but it will also improve his or her chances of being awarded a merit scholarship. If a student does not submit a standardized test, his or her GPA and college essay become even more important.

College Essays

Colleges want to learn something about a student that is not depicted in his or her transcript. That’s where a college essay comes in. For most students, this is a difficult process. That’s why it’s important to spend time crafting a quality essay, whether it’s a standard “tell us about yourself” essay or something more esoteric, such as “What advice would a wisdom tooth have?” College essays have become their own genre of writing, and admissions coaches like myself can teach students how to make the most of theirs.

Demonstrated Interest

Colleges have seen huge increases in their applicant pools, so many try to hedge their bets on who will attend if admitted. That means showing that you’re interested in a given college goes a long way. Students should also open emails (something that admissions departments can—and do—track) and letters from colleges, and initiate contact with admissions staffs as often as possible.

Teacher Recommendations

Most colleges require at least one teacher recommendation, but many ask for more. Students should ask teachers who know them well, and preferably who teach core academic subjects (math, science, English), to write on their behalf. 

Extracurricular Involvement

Contrary to popular belief, colleges aren’t necessarily looking for students who have participated in 15 different activities. They prefer quality over quantity. Most schools simply want to see busy students who do well academically.  

Dr. Dean Skarlis is the president/owner of The College Advisor of New York, an Albany-based company that provides admissions coaching and financial strategies assistance to students all over the world. For more information, visit CollegeAdvisorNy.com.

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